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"I loved three things: drama, politics and sports, and I'm not sure they always come in that order," Reagan once said. His picture in the high school yearbook bore the caption "Life is just one grand sweet song, so start the music." He was born on Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill., in that Midwestern heartland that is thought to be the seedbed of national heroes. But nothing about his origins augured any remarkable success. His father Jack, who had never reached high school, was a shoe salesman and an alcoholic. The family moved often; money was short. Reagan was 11 when he came home one day and found his father lying dead drunk on the porch. "I wanted to ... pretend he wasn't there," Reagan recalled. "I bent over him, smelling the sharp odor of whiskey ... I got a fistful of his overcoat [and] managed to drag him inside and get him to bed."
Sports gave Reagan a chance to get an education. He won a scholarship that paid half his $180 annual tuition at tiny Eureka College; he washed dishes to pay for his meals. Reagan had hardly arrived when the college's new president tried to cut back the faculty, so Reagan helped organize a student strike. In the process he developed his taste for audiences and his talent for oratory. "I discovered that night that an audience had a feel to it," he said of this first speech, "[and] that audience and I were together. When I came to actually presenting the motion ... there was no need for parliamentary procedure. They came to their feet with a roar ... It was heady wine."
Reagan also discovered that he was an actor. Taken to see a touring antiwar play, Journey's End, he identified strongly with the hero, even began to feel that he was the hero. "Nature was trying to tell me something," he recalled later, "namely that my heart is a ham loaf." He spent much of his time thereafter in student theatricals as well as football and swimming, with only the minimum study necessary to major in economics. Dutch Reagan (his father had bestowed the nickname at birth) emerged into the Depression-stricken America of 1932 and found there were very few jobs for actors and fewer still for football players. He borrowed the family Oldsmobile and wandered through nearby towns, looking for work at local radio stations. A station manager in Davenport, Iowa, asked him to narrate an imaginary football contest, and Reagan poured into the fakery all the enthusiasm of desperation. He was hired for $5 a game.
By 1937 he had gone no farther than Des Moines, which is a long way from Hollywood, but he persuaded radio station WHO to send him to California to cover the spring training of the Chicago Cubs. A Des Moines friend who was working as a singer sent him to see her agent, who called the casting director at Warner Bros. and said, "I have another Robert Taylor sitting in my office." Warner gave him a screen test, then signed him for $200 a week.