SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Close friends and family remembered Nancy Reagan as more than a first lady Friday, recalling at her funeral service how she and husband Ronald Reagan made up “two halves of a circle,” with a love for one another that inspired everyone they crossed paths with.
Inseparable in life, the pair were to be reunited in death in side-by-side graves at the Reagan’s presidential library.
During a service filled with poignant and often humorous memories, each speaker came back to the couple’s love story.
“When they were together, he hid love notes around the house for her to find,” said Reagan’s former chief of staff, James Baker. “She reciprocated by secreting little notes in jellybeans in his suitcase.
“Ronald and Nancy Reagan were defined by their love for each other,” Baker added. “They were as close to being one person as it I possible for any two people to be.”
Reagan spoke in public so warmly, and so often, about his wife, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recalled, that he once told Reagan he was making every other world leader look bad in front of their wives.
“Well, Brian,” he said the president told him with a smile, “That’s your problem.”
Mulroney also read an adoring letter written by Ronald Reagan to his wife on their first Christmas in the White House in 1981.
The letter said she filled his entire life with “warmth and love.”
Mrs. Reagan was her husband’s chief protector. When former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw once questioned the hard-luck story of the president’s early life, Brokaw recalled how she was so angry that Reagan’s staff advised him to stay away from the White House until she calmed down.
Reagan didn’t mind the criticism, Brokaw said, but his wife did.
As speakers eulogized Mrs. Reagan to the 1,000 invited guests gathered in a tent behind the library, rain began to fall.
Among those in the front row were first lady Michelle Obama, who was seated next to former President George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton sat next to Bush’s wife, Laura.
The sprawling, Spanish mission-style library is located between the Reagan’s post-White House home in the upscale Bel Air section of Los Angeles and Rancho del Cielo, the “ranch in the sky” where the Reagans spent their leisure time, sometimes on horseback, in the rugged mountains near Santa Barbara.
The guest list for the funeral tells a story about their lives, which stretched from Hollywood’s Golden Age to the California statehouse during Reagan’s time as governor to Washington. Four of the five living first ladies and relatives of every president dating to John Kennedy were expected to attend.
Early arrivals included former Reagan administration official Ed Meese, Mulroney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and singer Johnny Mathis.
As the group gathered briefly outside the library to chat, Mathis reminisced about how he and Mrs. Reagan would sing together during his visits to the Reagan family home. Their favourite song: “Our Love is Here to Stay.”
The memorial service brought together Democrat and Republican, an unusual tableau at a time of deep division in Washington and on the 2016 campaign trail.
Nancy Reagan’s two children, Patti Davis and Ronald Prescott Reagan, both spoke at the funeral, which also included choirs and a Marine Corps band.
James A. Baker, who served in the Reagan administration, and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw also gave remarks at the ceremony officiated by the Rev. Stuart Kenworthy, vicar of Washington National Cathedral.
On Wednesday and Thursday at the library, more than 5,500 mourners and Reagan faithful filed slowly past the former first lady’s closed casket, blanketed with white roses and peonies, Mrs. Reagan’s favourite flower.
Tears often fell. The crowd, many in greying years, spoke to a time when it was “morning again in America” and the nation followed the Reagan doctrine to weaken Soviet influence during the Cold War.
Reagan left the presidency after eight years, on January 20, 1989.
“Ronald Reagan was one of the best presidents we’ve ever had, and I admired them both as a couple for their love story and the support they showed to each other,” said retired school teacher Mary Ellen Gruendyke, from Riverside.
Mrs. Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, planned the smallest details of her funeral. She selected the funeral’s flower arrangements, the music to be played by a Marine Corps band and the list of guests invited to the private memorial.