Malibu remembers Ronald Reagan

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Robert Sutton (left) and son John, then a student at San Diego State, with President Ronald Reagan in 1990. 

The 40th president impacted locals, as well as people around the world, with his genial personality.

By David Wallace/Special to The Malibu Times

The level of grief engendered by the death of President Ronald Reagan has been equaled only rarely in our nation’s recent history. The reason seems simple; it is not a memory of better times that Americans are mourning-the Reagan era was cursed with the tensions of the last years of the Cold War and with double digit unemployment, high interest rates and other signs of economic malaise, which he diligently fought to bring under control.

From statements of people high and low, what most feel was lost with the 40th president’s death was the sense of genial chivalry and generosity of spirit he brought to public and personal affairs, attributes far removed from today’s adversarial politics. That, too, is how several Malibu residents remembered him recently.

Louis T. Busch has been a leader in Malibu’s real estate market and it was early in his 57-year career when he encountered Reagan, then an actor. “It was 1950 when I attended a meeting of the Santa Monica Board of Realtors,” Busch recalled. “Ronald Reagan was the speaker and his subject was ‘The American Flag and the Free Enterprise System.’ He received a standing ovation. I was so moved.”

Busch, then president of the 20-member Malibu Association of Realtors’ Board, added, “I called and asked him to address us and said, although we didn’t have much money for an honorarium, we’d give him a free lunch. He laughed and said he’d do it for free and pay for his own lunch. We didn’t let him do that, of course.

“At that time he had a ranch near Malibu Lake, and he also consulted with me about the best way to sell the property,” Busch continued. “He eventually sold it to the parks department” (President Reagan’s former ranch is now part of Malibu Creek State Park).

Ronald Reagan had a longtime connection to Pepperdine University, said Jim Wilburn, dean of the college’s School of Public Policy. “In 1968, when Pepperdine (then located downtown) decided to start the Malibu campus, they had a ‘Birth of a College’ event at the Century Plaza Hotel,” Wilburn recalled. “It was so popular that they added a simultaneous dinner at the Beverly Hilton. Reagan, he was governor then, addressed both and we gave him what I’m certain was his first honorary degree.”

“Later,” Wilburn continued, “when we named our undergraduate school Seaver College, he gave an address. Then, in 1979, when I was CEO of the Citizens for the Republic Foundation, I learned that he wanted to make a speech on his international views on a campus as part of his run for the presidency, and I arranged for it to be on the Pepperdine campus. And after he left the presidency, he returned and addressed the students who [after the speech] gave him a surfboard.”

It was Reagan’s attention to the little details that Malibu resident Jackie Sutton remembered. “When he was running for governor [in 1966], a small group I belonged to heard a speech of his, liked it, and sent for a tape. A week later there was a knock on my door and there was Ronald Reagan, dressed in a cowboy hat, a plaid shirt and jeans. He said, ‘I was on my way to my ranch and decided to drop it off.’ You should have seen what I looked like,” Sutton said with a laugh. “I was wearing an old T-shirt and shorts and curlers in my hair!”

Reagan belonged to the same fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon (when he attend Eureka College in Illinois in 1929), that Sutton’s son, John, joined when he attended San Diego State University in the early 1990s. Reagan joined John Sutton and his father Robert after a fraternity reunion at his Century City office in 1990.

Honey Coatsworth, a 54-year Malibu resident, talked about what is perhaps Malibu’s most tangible Reagan legacy. Following the disastrous fire in September 1970, she, then a member of the Lions Club, organized an emergency services center offering everything from clothes to cosmetics to toolboxes for the needy. Somehow, then Gov. Reagan heard of this and sent her a letter reading in part: “One of the greatest things that can be said of a person is that he gave of himself for others …. Please accept my sincere appreciation for your fine contribution to your community and the State of California in a time of dire need.”

“That’s where the idea of The Artifac Tree thrift shop came from,” said Coatsworth, president and director of the nonprofit facility on Cross Creek Road, run by the Malibu Community Service Volunteers. “We’ve been in business 31 years now,” she added of the shop, “helping individuals in need and giving donations and grants to charitable organizations.”

It’s a perfect example of the late president’s impact in the Malibu community.