TAMPICO – Rules were rules at the Dutch Diner.
In 1992, the Secret Service contacted then-owner Stan Headings with a special request: clear out the banquet room for former President Ronald Reagan on Mother’s Day.
The kicker: The agency wouldn’t say for sure whether Reagan would even drop by.
“I had a big long conversation with them,” Headings recalled during a recent interview. “We got into a squabble. I was supposed to bow down.
“They said Ronald Reagan might come. They didn’t want to say for sure for security reasons,” said Headings, who opened the Dutch Diner in 1981. “They wanted to reserve the whole back room. I said no.”
Reagan’s visit to town wasn’t made public, although the Daily Gazette in Sterling caught wind of it and published a story that the former president was likely to visit. His official schedule included only a commencement speech at his alma mater, Eureka College in Eureka, the day before.
Sundays were busy at the Dutch Diner – especially when it was Mother’s Day. Headings already knew customers would be in line. He couldn’t have empty tables in the back room while customers were waiting.
“I told the Secret Service that I would not discriminate against other customers for [Reagan’s] sake. They got a little huffy. They asked if there was another place to eat. I told them there was a tavern down the street that served chicken,” Headings said.
Later, the Secret Service called a waitress. Reagan would dine there after all.
It seemed natural for Reagan to choose the Dutch Diner, Dutch being his nickname. Many believe the restaurant was named in Reagan’s honor. That was only part of the reason, Headings said. The other was that his wife, Alta, was Pennsylvania Dutch.
On May 10, 1992, Reagan and his wife, Nancy, flew in to the Whiteside County Airport. They went by motorcade to Tampico, where he was born 102 years ago today.
He attended morning services at Church of Christ, to which his mother belonged.
The Rev. Clarke Devore preached to 75 worshippers. Reagan didn’t want to speak. But Devore, who retired from the church last year, couldn’t resist asking the former president to say a few words.
Reagan acknowledged his mother’s charitable work in the church. He noted how she fed people at their house.
“We were not flush with worldly goods in my youth, but my mother always found someone worse off than we were,” he said.
Almost as if apologizing, Reagan said: “I can’t tell if this is the exact same building my mother brought me to church in. The reason I can’t remember is that it was 70 years ago.”
It was the same building.
He told the congregation he didn’t want to interfere with the service anymore and sat down.
The church presented the Reagans with Bibles. And Devore, now in his mid-90s, told members that when he started with the church in 1968, it had members who knew Reagan’s mother.
‘He wasn’t very talkative’
With crowds watching behind barriers, Reagan went to the Dutch Diner. His waitress was Fran Pearson, who is still a Tampico-area resident.
“He wasn’t very talkative, but he was very pleasant,” Pearson told the Daily Gazette at the time.
Nancy got the chef’s salad and ate part of her husband’s fruit cocktail. Reagan had turkey, mashed potatoes, iced tea and raisin pie.
Two days earlier, the Secret Service picked up the menu. Agents ordered for the Reagans and staff beforehand. They also checked the kitchen.
Headings, now 73, was asked to join the Reagans for the meal. He declined. His restaurant, he said, needed all hands on deck.
But Headings, who sold the Dutch Diner in 1995, got to meet the couple. Reagan seemed like he was glad to meet people, Headings said, but the Gipper didn’t say much. He noted the way Nancy dressed and how she carried herself.
“Everything on her was perfect and in place,” he said. “Everything she did was perfect, the way she shook her hand. For a hillbilly like me, I supposed that kind of impressed me.”
‘Disappointed, but I wasn’t upset’
Afterward, the former president went to the Reagan birthplace museum.
“I think he was pleased and I think Nancy was pleased at what we had done,” museum operator Helen Nicely told the Gazette at the time.
Hard feelings lingered in Tampico after Reagan didn’t include the town in his itinerary when he dropped by Dixon, his hometown, in 1990.
“I can appreciate how he couldn’t do everything before,” Nicely said in the 1992 interview. “I was disappointed at the time, but I wasn’t upset.”
In 1994, Reagan announced publicly that he had Alzheimer’s. He faded from public view and died in 2004.
He never returned to Tampico or Dixon.
A 'loud, wet kiss' in Tampico
TAMPICO – How did Ronald Reagan view his birthplace?
Not too well, if his official biographer, Edmund Morris, is to be believed.
In a 2011 New York Times column, Morris, the author of "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," wrote about the Gipper's 1976 visit to Tampico during his unsuccessful campaign for president.
"Nancy Reagan loyally accompanied him, although a depressed village on the Illinois corn flats was not her kind of place," Morris wrote. "Somehow the town's least desirable citizen managed to infiltrate the receiving line and welcomed her to Tampico with open arms and a loud, wet kiss.
"He was hustled off by outraged aides while she searched for a Kleenex, and that part of Illinois was declared terra non grata on her husband's future itineraries."
Amy McElhiney, who ran the Reagan birthplace museum some years ago, wasn't happy with the way Morris described Tampico in his 1999 book, according to a 2003 story in the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly newspaper. The author referred to the Whiteside County town as the "home for the homely." He called the congregation at the Church of Christ when Reagan visited in 1992 a "corn-fed lot."
McElhiney told the Chicago Reader she didn't like Morris' description of Reagan recoiling at seeing his humble birthplace in 1992. She considered that an insult to Paul Nicely, who worked hard stripping the wallpaper, refinishing the woodwork and going to antique shops to find furniture appropriate to the early 1900s.
"He did not recoil," McElhiney told the Reader. "He enjoyed seeing his birthplace."
Birthday party today in Tampico
TAMPICO – The 102nd birthday of Ronald Reagan, Tampico's native son and the 40th president of the United States, will be celebrated from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today with open houses and tours at the Tampico Historical Society Museum and the Ronald Reagan Birthplace Museum.
Refreshments will be served.
Contact Joan Johnson at 815-622-8705 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.