Reagan touched lives in mid-Mo.

The late president visited Columbia in 1987.
Monday, June 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:58 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 28, 2008

As Columbia residents mourned the death of President Reagan, some had more intimate memories to draw on.

Reagan died Saturday. He was 93.

Longtime residents might recall Reagan’s visit to Columbia in March 1987. It was his first appearance outside Washington since the revelation of the Iran-contra affair. Although he spoke at Hickman High School at a national education conference, the president’s visit was marked by a conversation with Heather Watson, a sixth-grade student at Fairview Elementary.

After partnering with Watson for a civics lesson, the president took her question, ‘What is it that made it worthwhile to you?’ as a probe into the selling of arms to Iran. Reagan responded that it “sort of settled down to just trading arms for hostages, and that’s a little like paying ransom to a kidnapper.”

Questioned later by reporters, Watson said she had been asking about dealing with the presidential limelight.

“When he responded, I didn’t understand a word of his answer,” Watson, who now lives in Athens, Ga., said Sunday. “Later I was horrified to think that people thought I had asked about Iran-contra on purpose.”

“It was obvious that the issue was something at the forefront of his mind,” Watson said. “He wanted to address what was going on, and I really admire that he wasn’t afraid to do so.”

Watson said her interactions with Reagan in 1987 were warm and cordial.

“I could see why he had such an effect on people,” Watson said. “He was like everyone’s grandfather. I was sad to see him so ill in his last years.”

Penny Braun, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Mid-Missouri Chapter, heard rumors of the president’s failing health Thursday. She had heard similar rumors in the past and didn’t know how much credence to give the most recent ones but was not surprised to learn of his death on Saturday.

“President Reagan brought Alzheimer’s to the public eye and created sympathy and understanding,” Braun said. “My sympathies are with the Reagans. We understand what the family was going through.”

Braun said she hopes Reagan’s death will inspire legislators to recognize the duration of the disease and the prudence of supporting Alzheimer’s research.

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