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June 11, 2004

R.I.P Ronald Wilson Reagan: 'The Victory of Life Is Won'

John W. Ashbury

It's funny how things happen in one's life. A little known poem is recited by someone at a party, and 40 years later it is recalled by a man in attendance at that party.

And because that man was President of the United States, its recitation is hailed for its power and grace another 20 years later.

President Ronald Reagan changed America, for the better most believe, although his detractors are still wondering just how he did it.

He made Americans proud to be Americans again. His eternal optimism at a time when a national malaise encompassed just about all parts of life sparked anew the indomitable spirit that we know is America and Americans. High inflation, high taxes, and high prices had worked their way into our psyche, and President Reagan removed our depression, much the same as his hero - Franklin D. Roosevelt - had done for another generation.

There were moments of triumph and tragedy during his eight years in the Oval Office, a place he revered so highly that he never was without his suit jacket when in the room. One of the most memorable tragedies came on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during lift-off. President Reagan addressed the nation that evening and closed his remarks with the following paragraph.

'The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'

Thousands rushed to their Bartlett's, and every other place they had access, in an effort to locate the source of such powerful words. They didn't find it.

The words (italicized and bold faced above) come from a poem written by a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force - John Gillespie Magee Jr. - who died in a training flight accident in England just four days after Pearl Harbor. He had composed the 13-line poem - 'High Flier' - on the back of a letter addressed to his parents who were residing in Washington at the time.

Somehow Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress, learned of the poem and pronounced Magee among the greatest of the war poets.

The poem became widely known and plaques bearing Magee's words were posted throughout the United States and Canada. Some school children were even required to memorize it.

As thus it was that President Reagan came to know those immortal words. A plaque with the poem was posted near the entrance to the elementary school his daughter Patti attended.

But President Reagan had heard the words before at a party for actor Tyrone Power when he returned from World War II. Mr. Power had recited the poem from memory at that gathering and Actor Reagan, who possessed a photographic memory, never forgot it.

When Peggy Noonan, a speech writer in the Reagan White House in 1986, was asked to compose the president's remarks on the Challenger disaster, she, too, recalled Magee's words, as she had memorized them as a student in elementary school.

As we say our farewells to this man who changed the world, we recall his use of Magee's verse, and think how appropriate they are as we to say farewell to someone who touched all our lives - and made America stronger, not through rancor and disagreement, but through a personal commitment to core principles and to his God.

Here is the entire poem, written by a 19-year-old Canadian flyer more than 63 years ago as he prepared for war.

High Flier

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split
clouds,--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew'
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

As President Reagan is laid to rest on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean today, we can rephrase this poem to fit the occasion. He has 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth, put out (his) hand, and touched the face of God.'

Rest In Peace, Ronald Wilson Reagan. 'The strife is o'er, the battle done. The victory of life is won.'

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