Jack Reagan



On Fathers’ Day it is easy to recall and honor all the good fathers.  However, even a very flawed father can have a positive impact on a child.  Case in point Jack Reagan, the father of Ronald Reagan.

To be blunt, Jack Reagan was a drunk.  At eleven years old Ronald Reagan came home from school to find his father passed out on the porch,  dead drunk to the world.  In a small town the shame of that moment for a boy would be clear.  An alcoholic, one would think that the only impact that Jack could have on the life of his son was to be a negative example, but such was not the case.

Jack was gregarious and a born story teller, traits he passed on to his son.

He and his wife were always deeply in love, and his wife Nellie made sure that their sons knew that Jack was a good man in spite of his addiction to drink.

An Irish Catholic, he hated racial and religious bigotry.  He refused to allow his kids to see the film Birth of a Nation, because of its racist theme.  One cold winter night when he was on the road selling shoes, he slept in his car, rather than taking a room in a hotel that discriminated against Jews.

Reagan said of his father:

Among the things he passed on to me were the belief that all men and women, regardless of their color or religion, are created equal and that individuals determine their own destiny; that is, it’s largely their own ambition and hard work that determine their fate in life.


Jack Reagan died in 1941 at age 57, living just long enough to see that his son Ronald was a success as an actor.  In many ways, Jack Reagan was a failure, a drunk who barely was able to support his family.  However, there is more to being a father than personal failings or lack of financial success, and in the eyes of his two sons, Ronald and Neil, Jack Reagan was a success in that all-important role.

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  1. Well-told, and a mordant reminder.

    My maternal grandfather was a most intelligent man, like Jack Reagan: Dan M., an ardent Irish-Catholic, an up-and-comer in the San Francisco law profession in the 30’s and 40’s—and yet regrettably, a furiously incorrigible drunk. My paternal grandfather, also an accomplished lawyer, had met him at a family event, and after my parents’ engagement, saw the unraveling of his personality: he commented to my father (some very extreme words from my always-circumspect father’s father), “He’s coming unglued.”

    Nonetheless, my mother, her sister and her mother put things together after the divorce (which even the Irish pastor at St Brigid’s recommended to them, laoconically: “You two need to get divorced”,—a shocker for its day). Dan went on to a sporadically successful practice in Los Angeles, but died pretty much impoverished in his 50’s. My mother only got the phone call after his death.

    I have always found that the unrealized potential in others, where, like Jack Reagan, there can be seen so much flawed capacity for goodness and greatness, can be a profound lesson for us. But for the grace of God, there go I. Pay heed, Phoenix.

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