Hail to the Chief
Brite alumnus Rev. Michael Wenning '62 recalls life and memories of Ronald Reagan
He was the 40th president of the United States, known by fellow Americans for his optimistic outlook and by the world for conquering Communism. He had a ruddy complexion, a wrinkly face and a Hollywood nickname.
That was the Ronald Wilson Reagan we all knew.
But the Rev. Michael H. Wenning '62 (MDiv.) knew Mr. Reagan and wife Nancy more intimately, in only the way a pastor knows beloved parishioners.
"He was a warm and humble man, very giving of his time and attention," remembers Wenning, who was senior pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in suburban Los Angeles, where the Reagans attended after leaving Washington. "He was what you saw – just so genuine. In church, people would come for his autograph and he would oblige them. He would always take time to greet them."
In fact, so deep was the bond between the family and their pastor that they asked Wenning to officiate the interment service at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., some 10 years prior to Reagan’s death.
That day came this summer, with Wenning and wife Frieda '62 flying to California from their home in Florida at a moment’s notice.
The 25-mile motorcade from Point Magoo to Simi Valley was a particularly moving experience, Frieda said.
"Traffic came to a stop on the opposite side of the highway," she recalled, "and nearly everyone was out of their cars with signs, holding their hearts and calling to Nancy, saying 'We love you!’ And every overpass had fire trucks with flags and firemen standing at attention. There were people every single inch of the way."
At the interment, America caught a glimpse of the pastor the Reagans adored so much, as Wenning offered tender words of tribute and grief. But Wenning admits the words were extemporaneous, completely unprepared.
"We had to get on the plane so quickly when we heard he was not well. I was running on adrenaline the whole time. So I didn’t have time to think about it. I just wanted to do the best I could do by God’s grace. It was only weeks after, I let down and felt a personal sadness."
Reflecting now, Wenning considers what an honor it was simply to attend.
"I couldn’t get over how great a privilege it was just to be walking, leading the casket… only in America," said Wenning, a native of South Africa. "My late father would have been so absolutely proud."
One moment of consolation became the picture of newspaper front pages across the nation as Wenning opened his arms to Mrs. Reagan for a comforting embrace.
"I think all of America wanted to do that," he said. "That week, the news of his death gave us all a break from the news of war. I think it was a way of uniting the whole country.
"But the greater honor was that I had the privilege to be a witness of the Christian faith, and the Lord gave me that honor. I feel so humbled and overwhelmed by it."