News of the death of former First Lady Nancy Reagan triggered memories of my years as a foot soldier in her war against drugs. Between 1981 and 1985 I met the First Lady three times and followed her once to the speakers’ podium at the annual conference of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth in Washington, D.C.
In 1981 I was a 40-year-old wife, mom and volunteer, president of the PTA at my son’s junior high school and a high school Sunday School teacher in my local church. In those roles I saw far too much marijuana use, and like most parents, I was frightened. Therefore, when the Junior League of Corpus Christi asked me to lead the local effort to educate parents about drug use, I said yes.
Texas Governor Bill Clements had invited billionaire Ross Perot to chair a committee to lead the Texans’ War on Drugs, and I was invited to the kick-off luncheon in Dallas, where Mrs. Reagan was keynote speaker. I came home and—working in partnership with the local medical auxiliary and PTAs—established Coastal Bend Families in Action. I was far out of my comfort zone building a coalition from scratch, which I wrote about in an earlier blog here.
One thing led to another, and I became a consultant and speaker for the Texans’ War on Drugs and eventually a member of the executive committee of the National Federation of Parents, my first nonprofit board experience beyond the local level. Traveling to Washington for board meetings, I met Mrs. Reagan, who served as honorary chair of NFP, twice more. She was an elegant, even glamorous woman—always superbly dressed in classic designer clothes.
I still smile when I remember the conversations as we stood in line to shake hands with her. One woman wanted to know who colored her hair. Another disagreed. “I want to know who her plastic surgeon is.” [The curiosity emerged from the fact that she was so artfully groomed that even though she was in her 60s, there was no visible evidence that she colored her hair or had had a facelift.]
Standing behind me in line once was the CEO of a major corporation—General Motors, I think. He had a question for me. “Please give me a detailed description of what she is wearing, because my wife will demand to know all about it as soon as I get home.”
The perks of national board membership were attractive. We once had a private tour of the White House, where a few crumbs were still on the dining table an hour or so after President Reagan had hosted foreign leaders. However, I soon tired of the teas and protocol. The agenda was the White House’s, not the board’s. I resigned from the board and involved myself again in local causes, where I thought I could make a real difference.
Looking back at that period of my life, I realize how many doors opened for me as a result. My grassroots involvement in the war of drugs led to my serving as a field reader for the U.S. Department of Education for almost a decade, where I evaluated grant proposals for alcohol- and drug-education projects at the college level. Which led to my chairing of a committee at Baylor University to rewrite its drug and alcohol policies. Which led to my election to the Baylor board. Which led to service on other regional and national boards.
I could have never designed a career path to take me on this adventure. I simply walked through doors when they opened. More often than not, I found an interesting room in which to linger…and more open doors through which to walk. Looking back on it all, what I remember best and appreciate most are the people I met. Nancy Reagan was unique among them. Now, in an era that seems to make virtues of the rude, crude and vulgar, I wish our nation had more like her.
Photos: Meeting First Lady Nancy Reagan and Texas First Lady Rita Clements in Dallas, 1981. Greeting Mrs. Reagan in Washington, about 1984.