What Ronald Reagan Thought of Nile Kinnick

Monday, March 9th, 2009 | Columns, Iowa History Journal

This article appeared in Iowa History Journal issue number 1:

It was on October 30, 1990, that I found myself face to face with Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States of America. Just two years out of the White House, he was visiting his hometown of Dixon, Illinois, for what would prove to be the last time, and was meeting a group of thirty Dixon citizens. As the executive editor of the Dixon newspaper, I and my wife, Bev, were invited to meet Mr. Reagan.

The former president worked his way around the small circle, shaking hands as he was being introduced to those assembled. As he moved toward Bev and me, I wondered what I would say to the man who had served his country in the highest office for eight years and was also acknowledged to be the leader of the Free World during that era.

All three of us – Mr. Reagan, Bev, and I – had Iowa roots. I was born and raised in Waterloo, while Bev grew up on a farm south of Waterloo, near Eagle Center. In the mid 1930s, a young Ron Reagan worked for radio stations in both Davenport and Des Moines before heading west to California, and his destiny.

I knew everyone in the room would be talking to him about Dixon, as there were several former classmates in the group, and other longtime Dixon political figures. So, as Mr. Reagan came closer, I decided I would ask him a question about Iowa.

Tall and very impressive in his dark suit at age 79, he stood in front of Bev and me and we shook hands. He spoke softly and said he was happy to meet us, and was about to move on to the next person when I spoke out:

mike with ronald reagan reagan
“Mr. President, I know you used to broadcast Iowa football games in the 1930s, and so I wondered if you ever met Nile Kinnick.”

He stopped in his tracks, looked at me again, and smiled faintly.

“Noooo, I never did,” he said in that familiar voice. “I was gone to California by the time Nile was a playing at the university. But I wish I would have met him. He was quite a man.”

And then I offered my own opinion of Nile Kinnick.

“I’ve read a great deal about his life,” I said, “and had he not died at the age of 24 on a training flight during World War II, I think he might have become someone very, very special.”

Mr. Reagan nodded and then added a line I will never forget:

“Yes, I agree. I think he could have been anything he wanted, maybe even President of the United States!”

The former President of the Untied States said he thought Nile Kinnick might have become President of the United States!

That story has stuck in my mind for nearly twenty years. I told it once when I was a guest on WHO Radio in Des Moines and on several occasions when giving speeches around the state, like at the Iowa Quarterback club in Iowa City. That group has asked me back three times, and the members love the story. Among those in the audience was Bump Elliott, the former highly-successful athletic director at the University of Iowa.

After one such speech, I ran into Bump an hour later in downtown Iowa City. He said to me, “You tell so many interesting stories about Iowa history, Mike. They should be written down somewhere or they will be forgotten.”

Bump is right – stories about a state’s leaders, interesting personalities and important events need to be saved before they disappear forever. That is one of the main reasons Iowa History Journal has come into existence. Without knowing it, of course, Nile Kinnick, Ronald Reagan and Bump Elliott all played key roles in the birth of Iowa History Journal.

I have always loved history and journalism. I worked for 35 years as a newspaper writer, editor and publisher in three states, Iowa, Illinois and Colorado. Every time Bev and I left Iowa for a better job somewhere else, we always managed to come back home. We both have very strong Iowa connections and are very proud of our roots.

The goal of Iowa History Journal is to keep alive the memories of Iowa’s heritage in a manner that is both educational and entertaining. We want readers to take an active part in the publication. We will encourage letters to the editor from readers, and ideas for stories and photographs.

We will print six issues a year (in the months of January, March, May, August, October, and December) skipping June and July. Since we believe it will be a tremendous educational tool, for the first year all ten issues will be sent free to the library of every high school, junior high and college in the state. We want young readers to have a chance to read the issue and learn something new and exciting about their state. They can take the Iowa History Quiz each issue to see how much they really know about Iowa.

We hope you will enthusiastically embrace Iowa History Journal and tell others about it, and subscribe. It will make a superb gift to a family members or friends who have moved out of state and want to retain their Iowa ties in small measure. It will be a great gift for any friend or relative who lives in the state.

We hope all Iowans will embrace Iowa History Journal and welcome it into their schools, offices and homes. We will try our best to make it a valuable part of your life and provide some delightful breaks from the stress-packed world we live in.

Finally, I hope you will cherish the story you read here that brings together two wonderful examples of the human spirit with very strong Iowa ties – Nile Kinnick and Ronald Reagan! At least now, the story is in print and will survive beyond the limited world of speeches.

(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. He was a newspaperman for 35 years, his last job as publisher of the Newton Daily News. He is the author of 20 books, two movie scripts and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton, Iowa.)

1 Comment to What Ronald Reagan Thought of Nile Kinnick

Al Dana
May 2, 2013

I am glad I finally found out about the Iowa History Journal. I love history and I am very happy to learn about the History Jounal of my native state. I was born in Davenport as one of about 50 cousins who were not born on a farm around the birth center of the family , Dewitt!

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