Roy Dillard drove more than 100 miles with two of his daughters and his 3-year-old great-granddaughter to pay their respects to Nancy Reagan and honor the legacy of what he called “the greatest president of my lifetime.”
They came to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where the former first lady lay in repose Wednesday, the first of three days of mourning that conclude with Friday’s funeral. From quiet, tearful individuals to multigenerational families, more than 3,000 people passed by her casket in the first day of public viewing.
Dillard’s daughter Bobbie Eldridge said she admired how the first lady “stood by her man, the great and beautiful love that they had and how she became his caretaker” in old age. She and her 80-year-old father drove from Bakersfield to the library in Simi Valley.
Retired teacher Mary Ellen Gruendyke drove nearly as far from her Riverside home, appearing with a colorful Ronald Reagan souvenir scarf around her neck.
“Ronald Reagan was one of the best presidents we’ve ever had,” Gruendyke said, “and I admired them both as a couple for their love story and the support they showed to each other.”
Many cited that love story as most in their thoughts as they stood at the casket, including Daniel Blatt of West Hollywood, who left in tears after paying his respects.
“He wouldn’t have been anything without her by his side,” Blatt said.
Shuttles bused groups of mourners to take turns walking quietly in a circle around the casket covered in white roses and peonies — Nancy Reagan’s favorite flower. Most of the visitors were older, at least old enough to have lived through the Reagan years as adults, although some brought younger children.
Another day of public viewing comes Thursday.
Her two children, Patti Davis and Ronald Prescott Reagan, will be among the speakers at their mother’s funeral Friday, according to the Reagan Foundation.
James A. Baker, who served in President Reagan’s administration, and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw also will give remarks during the private ceremony officiated by the Rev. Stuart Kenworthy, vicar of Washington National Cathedral.
Wednesday began at a Santa Monica funeral home with a 45-mile motorcade that carried Nancy Reagan’s casket down an empty freeway lined with saluting firefighters and mourners holding hands over their hearts in tribute.
Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, will be laid to rest just inches from the president on a hillside tomb in the hills above Simi Valley, facing west toward the Pacific Ocean.
At the library, a military honor guard carried the casket between two identical towering portraits of the former first lady wearing a long, red dress and then past a gurgling courtyard fountain. The casket was placed in a lobby behind a bronze statue of a smiling Ronald Reagan holding a cowboy hat.
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,” Kenworthy 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 as well as Dennis Revell, the widower of the president’s late daughter Maureen. Michael Reagan, the president’s adopted son from his first marriage to Jane Wyman, is expected at Friday’s funeral.
After the prayers, Davis led mourners in taking turns to pay their respects, standing quietly by her mother’s casket. The final one was the former first lady’s spokeswoman, Joanne Drake, who fought back tears.
When the private service ended, House Speaker Paul Ryan bowed his head at the casket, made the sign of the cross and clasped his hands in prayer for about a minute.