Tuesday 20 February 2018

Nancy Reagan begins final journey to husband's side

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library volunteers line the road as Nancy Reagan's body arrives (AP)
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library volunteers line the road as Nancy Reagan's body arrives (AP)

Nancy Reagan has begun her final journey to her husband's side as a police motorcade carried her coffin down an empty freeway lined with saluting firefighters and mourners holding hands over their hearts in tribute to America's former first lady.

The roadside reverence reflected her late husband's touch with the common man and followed some of the route his own funeral procession took in 2004, eventually winding its way up to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where volunteers in blue jackets stood behind a guardrail festooned with small American flags.

The day began with a private ceremony for family and close friends at a funeral home in Santa Monica, followed by a public viewing at the library.

People came from near and far to pay tribute to the 94-year-old widow of the 40th president, who was respected for her grace, strength and unfailing loyalty to her husband during this two terms in office and his final struggles with Alzheimer's disease.

Retired teacher Mary Ellen Gruendyke, who arose early so she could drive nearly 100 miles from her Riverside home, said she admired Mrs Reagan for her "Just Say No" campaign against drugs and the president for infusing a sense of patriotism in the country.

"Ronald Reagan was one of the best presidents we've ever had and I admired them both as a couple for their love story and the support they showed to each other," said Ms Gruendyke, who wore a Ronald Reagan souvenir scarf around her neck.

Shuttles bused groups of mourners to take turns walking quietly in a circle around the coffin covered in white roses and peonies - Mrs Reagan's favourite flower.

The mood was sombre and many wiped away tears. More than 1,000 people paid their respects in the first two hours, according to the library.

The public viewing came hours after the small motorcade traveled 45 miles from the coast to the hills above Simi Valley, north west of Los Angeles. The public viewing will continue up to the funeral on Friday.

Mrs Reagan, who died on Sunday, planned the smallest details of her funeral. She selected the funeral's flower arrangements, the music to be played by a Marine Corps band and the list of guests invited to the private memorial.

Just as she was always by her husband's side in life, she will be laid to rest inches from the president on a hillside tomb facing west towards the Pacific Ocean.

As a heavy flow of traffic moved in the other direction, the normally-congested highway lanes were kept open for the hearse as it drove beneath a massive flag hung by firefighters from a flyover.

After turning on to the Ronald Reagan Freeway, the vehicle passed under the firefighters, who wore dress blues and saluted atop their trucks. Building workers in hard hats, riders on horseback, parents holding children and other observers lined the roadside to watch and take photos.

When the hearse arrived at the library, a military honour guard carried the coffin between two identical towering portraits of the diminutive Mrs Reagan wearing a long, red dress and then past a gurgling courtyard fountain. The coffin was placed in a lobby behind a bronze statue of a smiling Ronald Reagan holding a cowboy hat.

The Reagan's daughter Patti Davis, dressed in black, was among about 20 family members and close friends who attended a short prayer service beside the closed casket.

"May angels surround her and saints release her to Jesus," the Rev Stuart Kenworthy, vicar at the Washington National Cathedral, said during a short eulogy.

The Rev Donn Moomaw, the Reagan family's pastor, read from the 23rd Psalm, which begins: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."

Attendees included the children of Ronald Reagan's son Michael and Dennis Revell, the widower of the president's late daughter Maureen. Michael Reagan and the president's other son, Ron Prescott Reagan, are expected at Friday's funeral.

After the prayers, Ms Davis led mourners in taking turns to pay their respects, standing quietly by her mother's coffin. The final one was Mrs Reagan's spokeswoman, Joanne Drake, who fought back tears.

When the private service ended, House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan bowed his head to the coffin, made the sign of the cross and clasped his hands in prayer for about a minute.

Those who came to pay their respects tended to be older, many with memories of Ronald Reagan as both president and governor of California.

Roy Dillard, 80, drove more than 100 miles from Bakersfield with several generations of his family. He called Mr Reagan the greatest president in his lifetime. His daughter, Tina Choate, added: "And he was a wonderful governor too."

"And a great movie star in westerns," daughter Bobbie Eldridge chipped in.

Ms Eldridge said she most admired how Mrs Reagan "stood by her man" and the "beautiful love that they had".

Press Association

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