Ronald Reagan’s Time in Des Moines

Ronald (Dutch) Reagan, movie star, governor of California, and president of the United States from 1981-1988, lived in Des Moines for a time in the 1930s, when he worked as a sports announcer for WHO radio.  Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, in 1911, attended high school in Dixon, Illinois, and graduated from Eureka College. After graduation, he worked odd jobs until landing an announcing job at radio station WOC in Davenport, Iowa.  Subsequently, he moved to Des Moines and was hired as a sports announcer for WHO after an audition where he described an imaginary football game.  Later in his WHO career, he “announced” Chicago Cubs baseball games in the Des Moines studio by reading a pitch-by-pitch account off the wire as if he were actually at the game.  He was so skillful that some listeners believed he actually was at the game!

In 1937, Reagan was in Los Angeles with the Chicago Cubs in connection with his radio job. While there, he jokingly mentioned to Joy Hodges, a Des Moines native then working in the movies that he would like to get into “pictures.”  Hodges took him at his word and arranged a screen test for him. By the time he returned to Des Moines by train, a six-month, $200-a-week contract with Warner Brothers was waiting in his mailbox. An article in the Des Moines Tribune in 1937 quotes him as saying, “I may be out there for only the six months.  Of course I hope it doesn’t turn out that way-but you never can tell.”  Reagan left Des Moines near the end of May 1937, little suspecting he would one day make a return visit as president of the United States.

While in Des Moines, Reagan lived in a house at the southeast corner of Fourth and Center streets that had been converted to apartments, presently the site of Hy-Vee Hall.  He was also known to frequent the Moonlight Inn, a speakeasy at 73rd and University.  A former lifeguard, he spent many summer days at the Camp Dodge swimming pool and is said to have rescued one or two swimmers there.

A bronze marker placed on a limestone rock at the corner of Fourth Street and Court Avenue in 2000 commemorates Reagan’s four years in Des Moines.  It features a sculpted bronze likeness of Reagan surrounded by scenes of his life here.

Sources
Des Moines Tribune, April 3, 1937.
Des Moines Register, June 15, 2004, p. 4NW.
Des Moines Register, November 10, 1999, p. 1M.
American Decades. Gale Research, 1998.

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