Life Lessons From the Gipper On His 101st Birthday

Life Lessons From the Gipper On His 101st Birthday February 6, 2012

Today is the 101st anniversary of the birth of my all-time favorite President (as you can see on my “About” page). His name has become legend. If I were to say it among a random group of Americans, anyone would know immediately who I’m talking about. But fewer people are familiar with who Ronald Reagan was before he became President, particularly before he began his political career.
Ronald Reagan spent most of his young life in Hollywood, carving out a respectable niche for himself while rubbing shoulders with a lot of famous stars. He was never a great actor, yet he had charisma and a natural presence on screen that endeared him to viewers. But more importantly, he built a reputation as a genuinely nice guy. He offered advice, but it was never the kind of “advice” that was designed to put him in the spotlight. He was always helping the other actors, always working with a mind to what was best for the picture as a whole.

In 1949, he worked in a brilliant film called The Hasty Heart. It came at a low point in his life and his career, but he turned in one of his most memorable performances. However, it became clear that the real star of the picture was a young rookie actor named Richard Todd (who would earn a richly deserved Oscar nod for his moving portrayal of the lead character, a young soldier who doesn’t know he’s dying). Was Reagan jealous? Looking back, Todd recalls that Reagan “couldn’t have been nicer to a complete unknown.”  Interestingly, there’s a letter Reagan wrote while he was President where he says almost the exact same thing about working with Humphrey Bogart in the late 30s. Bogart was established, but Reagan was just starting out. Yet Reagan recalls, coincidentally with almost the exact same wording Todd used, that Bogart “couldn’t have been more helpful to a beginner like myself.” Not every actor was this generous and humble (Errol Flynn for one had a rather different attitude towards Reagan, particularly when Reagan started to get more fan mail than he did), but Bogie was. That little “chain” intrigued me: Established Bogart encourages young Reagan, and then a decade and a half later an established Reagan turns around and pays it forward to another young actor.
That sort of chain can be forged anywhere. No matter what your field is, when you invest yourself in the young “unknowns,” the young “beginners,” you have no idea what that simple kindness might mean for somebody years down the road. That young “beginner” you helped will never forget what you did for him, and one day when he makes a name for himself, he may well turn around and pass your gift along to someone else. It can even happen in southern gospel. Humility is the key. The moment you start thinking it’s all about you is the moment you stop giving of yourself to others. Reagan was a team player in the best sense of the word.
Another notable characteristic of the young Reagan was that he was always committed to doing his best in whatever he did, no matter how small. I’d like to quote from something he wrote just before going off to the army reserves in 1942. It was a magazine essay that he titled “How to Make Yourself Important.” But the title was really a bit of a joke. Listen to what Reagan has to say here:

I hold that all this business about making yourself important by means of externals is no good. Clothes, being seen in the Right Places, show, swank–No! … Nor do I believe that you have to be a standout from your fellow men in order to make your mark in the world. Average will do it. Certainly if I am to serve as my own guinea pig for this little homily, it will have to do it…..
Lots of kids write and ask my advice about how to make their mark in an indifferent world….So what I’d like to tell ‘em is this: Look, you must love what you are doing. You must think what you are doing is important because if it’s important to you, you can bet your last ducat that other people will think so, too. It may take time, but they’ll get around to it…

Reagan goes on to talk about playing “B” pictures and working his way up:

Thanks to some good advice from a guy named Pat O’Brien [the actor who played Knute Rockne in Reagan’s breakout film], I played those “B’s” as if they were “A’s.” You see, the boss only goes by results. If I do a part carelessly because I doubt its importance, no one is going to write a subtitle explaining that Ronald Reagan didn’t feel the part was important, therefore he didn’t give it very much….

And at the end, he talks about his future:

Uncle Sam has called me, a  Reserve Officer in the Cavalry, and I’m going off to war, still true to my precepts: (a) to love what you are doing with all your heart and soul and (b) to believe what you are doing is important.

Again, so true, for everything in life—including music. Are you a talented young singer looking for an opportunity to show what you can do? Are you a little-known group patiently waiting for your big break? Then take Reagan’s youthful advice to heart: Love what you’re doing, and play the “Bs” like they’re “As.” If you’re a hopeful teenager, and somebody invites you to sing at a nursing home, go and give it everything you’ve got. If your small trio or quartet is invited to sing at a church and only two dozen people show up, sing like you’re on mainstage at NQC. If you truly believe that you are doing something important, people will see that, and more importantly God will see that. If you are faithful in a few things, wherever God has planted you, then He will reward you with many things.

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