Ronald Reagan would have been 103 on Thursday. Peggy Grande, his executive assistant in the decade after his presidency, spoke about him at Jupiter's At The Crossing in Champaign as part of an Americans for Prosperity event.
Grande was Reagan's personal photographer and worked in his presidential library in California, where she has spent all her life.
Grande was a college student when she sent a letter to Reagan seeking an internship, just because she admired him.
"I thought it was a short-term thing, but it ended up being my whole life," says the leadership speaker.
Grande talks in awe of the man — and tells some stories.
The decision: Chocolate, or chocolate?
No matter what else was served, Reagan always wanted dessert — and he usually made sure to eat dinner in reverse order, especially if the sweet was chocolate-based. If he had to leave an event early, "I'd always bring a to-go box of dessert into the limo; he hated to miss dessert," Grande says.
A real gentleman
Sweets were not the only trait the president had that Grande thinks of as Midwestern.
"He was real, authentic, sincere and always a gentleman," she says of Reagan, who often reached out to his post-presidential office staff of about a dozen. Grande remembers that he would take her by the elbow going up and down stairs, hold the door for her and ask about her family (husband Greg and four children).
Religious and respectful
Reagan never tried to hide his Christianity, often weaving the subject into conversation. But Grande said he was also respectful of others' beliefs, never forcing his views on others. He believed that freedom of religion is a cornerstone of democracy.
Wit and wisdom
The former president often used humor to break up tension in meetings — as well as in his debates with Walter Mondale. Most of the time, she says, Reagan had a gentle sense of humor, and if anyone was to be the target, it was usually Reagan himself.
He was loved
Reagan's good humor often brought out affection in others. Sometimes it brought out something close to awe; she remembers a Romanian woman who knelt before him and kissed his feet after the fall of the Soviet Union.
He surprised himself
The president knew that communism "was a failed experiment" in Eastern Europe and that the Berlin Wall would come down.
"But he was very surprised at just how fast it happened," Grande says.
He wasn't a back-seat driver
She thinks Reagan would be reserved in criticism of President Obama if he had lived long enough.
"He was very principled, but he respected others," Grande says.