Reagan's rise to eminence moved along a path that, in the beginning, resembled that of many other American politicians but that later diverged sharply from the norm. He was born on 6 February 1911 in the small town of Tampico, Illinois. His parents, Jack and Nelle, named him Ronald Wilson for a great-uncle but always called him Dutch (after his father began referring to the strapping baby as his "fat little Dutchman"). Jack Reagan was an unsuccessful salesman with a serious drinking problem. Nelle Wilson Reagan was a devout farm-woman who raised Ronald and his older brother, Neil, in the Disciples of Christ Church despite their father's Catholicism. The family moved frequently, sometimes in response to new job opportunities, sometimes after Jack had been fired because of his drinking. In 1920 they settled in Dixon, Illinois, where Jack became the proprietor and part owner of a shoe store.
Nelle did occasional work to supplement the family's meager income and became intensely active in church functions. She seemed to live a life of almost complete self-denial, devoted to her children, defensive of her unsuccessful, alcoholic husband (whom she taught her children to tolerate and forgive). But on occasion, she showed signs of frustrated ambitions, particularly when she traveled around the county giving dramatic readings of poetry and melodrama to church groups and other gatherings—a popular form of entertainment at the time and one at which Nelle apparently excelled. Her younger son often accompanied her on these outings, although he later denied that they were the source of his attraction to acting.
Ronald Reagan was an outgoing, optimistic, popular, and apparently happy youth despite the problems of his family. He was interested in sports from an early age and particularly liked football and swimming. His nearsightedness, undiagnosed until he was thirteen, made baseball difficult for him. He was a hardworking and modestly successful student, with a talent for memorization. He was active early in school dramatics. As a teenager, he worked during summers as a lifeguard at the swimming area of the local river and put aside much of what he earned for his education.
His greatest childhood challenge may have been learning to deal with his father's drinking. As an eleven-year-old, he found his father drunk and passed out on the front porch, dragged him inside, and put him to bed. From then on, he joined his mother and brother in compensating for Jack's "illness," as Nelle explained it to the children. And he began as well to construct a series of defenses, finding ways to wall off the pain of his father's alcoholism from the rest of his essentially happy youth—denying unpleasant realities and viewing his world as he wished it to be. When he graduated from the public high school in Dixon in 1928, he wrote in his yearbook, "Life is just one grand, sweet song, so start the music."
Reagan had been a member of the varsity football team in high school, and his competent if unre-markable performance on the field was enough to win him a scholarship to Eureka College, a small Disciples of Christ school about a hundred miles from Dixon. He was interested in the school in part because one of Dixon's best football players (and one of Reagan's boyhood idols) had studied there six years earlier, and also because Reagan's high school girlfriend, the daughter of the Disciples of Christ minister in Dixon, would be attending.
Entering college, even one as small and provincial as Eureka, was a sign of unusual ambition in Dixon. Fewer than 10 percent of the town's recent high school graduates (and no other member of Reagan's own family) had ever done so. But Reagan glided through college without any visible single-mindedness of purpose. His grades were little better than passing (deliberately so, he later implausibly claimed, to keep him from being recruited—as most good students at Eureka were—to be a high school teacher and coach). He played on the football team but rarely started, enjoyed modest success as a varsity swimmer, and was active in the college's drama society. Even with a scholarship, Reagan had to work hard at several jobs, both during the term and over the summers, to remain in school. But he established himself nevertheless as one of the most visible and popular students on campus.
Reagan's youth was in many ways oddly similar to that of other provincial Americans who rose to political prominence: a boyhood in a small town, a family struggling precariously on the edges of the middle class, education in small, undistinguished schools. Huey P. Long, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and many others had grown up in comparable circumstances. But unlike most other small-town boys who rose to political greatness, Reagan showed little early interest in politics. Jack Reagan, like most American Catholics of his era, was a staunch Democrat; and Ronald inherited his father's unreflective enthusiasm for the party even though, throughout the 1920s, it enjoyed little national success. He became a fervent admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, an attachment that grew stronger when New Deal agencies began providing jobs to unemployed men (among them his father) in depression-ravaged central Illinois. But he never became actively involved in Democratic politics in the state. He found himself drawn occasionally into campus politics at Eureka and in his senior year won election as class president. But when he graduated in 1932, with a B.A. in economics and sociology, politics and public life remained far from his thoughts. He was, he later wrote, drawn to "some form of show business," an interest born in part of his experiences in the Eureka drama society.