By Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune
DIXON, Illinois — Decades before he became known as the Teflon president and the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan was a hunk in trunks.
For seven summers on the banks of the Rock River, north of Reagan’s boyhood hometown of Dixon, Illinois, the young man who became president monitored the beach at Lowell Park. Locals say more than a few women faked peril in the water so that the strapping, handsome fellow who sometimes parted his hair down the center would whisk them to safety.
“There are a lot of people who’ll come to town for a Reagan visit and the first thing they ask is, ‘Where is Lowell Park?’ ” Dixon Mayor Jim Burke said. “Then they’ll ask, ‘Where is the boyhood home?’ ”
Which is why Burke is leading a $200,000, privately funded effort to place what some might consider a slightly unpresidential sculpture of Reagan on the northern banks of the Rock River in Lowell Park. The sculpture of young Ron shows him in a one-piece tank top swimsuit that was ubiquitous in that era.
“We talked about it,” Burke said, referring to a discussion among sculpture advocates about whether a depiction of Reagan in swimwear was undignified. “But everybody agreed that the statue is of him as a young man, when he was parting his hair down the middle. … I think if Reagan was alive, he’d approve of it because of that spot being such a big part of his life.”
The city of Dixon reports that Reagan saved 77 lives while guarding the beach, although the number of purported rescues ballooned into the hundreds as his political career ascended.
The job provided him with $200 per summer for college expenses, city historical records show.
Burke and others note that Reagan, on a presidential visit, ordered Air Force One to circle Lowell Park to see what had changed since his lifeguarding days.
During the summers, the park was central to his life, Burke said. “He had his home, church, school and Lowell Park.”
Dixon, a town of about 16,000, is 102 miles west of Chicago along the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway (Interstate 88). It is known as the Petunia Capital of Illinois, and volunteers every year plant more than 30,000 of the pink flowers along main streets.