A friend’s loss – Grass Valley retiree worked with Reagan
To a generation, he was “The Great Communicator,” skillfully reaching the press and the public via his quick wit and homespun delivery.
He was the man millions credit with forever changing world diplomacy while championing an economy at home that ran on all cylinders during most of his eight-year presidency.
But for Beth Moorhead of Grass Valley, former President Ronald Reagan was always “governor,” a man whose penchant for jovial and earthy mannerisms far outshone his formidable political prowess.
The tributes to Reagan as the nation mourns his passing today are well-deserved, said Moorhead, who worked for Reagan when he was the state’s 33rd governor, from 1967 to 1975.
“I just knew he was the right man for me,” said Moorhead, now retired. “He could relate to you no matter who you were.”
Moorhead, who came to the state Capitol to work for Reagan’s predecessor, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown shortly before Reagan was elected, remembers a man who loved roaming the halls of the Capitol without an escort, a politician who shook hands with everyone and loved peeking his head in meetings, just to make a joke while members of his security and appointments staff scurried around the building in vain, looking for the former movie star.
He was, Moorhead said, a man who was probably more comfortable lying in a hammock at his ranch than delivering a stump speech, though not many people could tell.
“People just related to him; they felt he was honest. He just didn’t look like a bad guy. He had a very clean-cut look about him.”
Not unlike the roles Reagan played in such feel-good flicks as “The Winning Team” and “Knute Rockne, All-American.”
Moorhead began her work at the Capitol as a stenographer, working her way up as an assistant to the governor’s appointments secretary before serving as a secretary to Reagan’s cabinet secretary. She sat right beside him in meetings with the state’s top government officials.
There, she discovered Reagan’s love for quick quips and his craving for jelly beans, which were always perched on a table right next to Reagan’s chair.
After Moorhead eschewed the jelly beans the first few times she attended these meetings, Reagan playfully raised a stink with his chief of security, Ed Hickey.
“He said, ‘Ed, check her out. She doesn’t like my jelly beans.'”
The world would soon learn of the two-time president’s affinity for jelly beans as Reagan occupied the Oval Office.
Mementos of Moorhead’s professional relationship with Reagan are placed all over her Morgan Ranch-area home. She has a jelly-bean jar stenciled with Reagan’s name on it; several unopened cigarette packs from Air Force One; sugar packets with Congress’ seal; autographed biographical books on Reagan; even a signed wall poster of Reagan in full Western gear titled “America: Reagan Country,” commissioned during one of his presidential campaigns.
One of Moorhead’s most prized possessions is a plaque he presented to members of his staff when he left the governor’s office.
One of the quirkiest mementos is used by Moorhead almost daily. Once, when Moorhead was running between meetings, she was handed two tiny silver bowls filled with the last of the governor’s beloved tapioca pudding. Moorhead was asked to take them to the cafeteria to be washed but was called away before she had the chance to do so.
The utensils now occupy a prominent place in her kitchen.
Reagan often held summer pool parties at the governor’s mansion, and Moorhead was there when he dived into the pool to help a guest who couldn’t swim well, before one of her twin sons got off the diving board.
The Reagans’ friendship with Moorhead and her first husband, J.C. Smith, continued as the former president mounted runs for president. When Smith passed away in January 1978, Reagan called Moorhead three times to offer condolences.
“He just wanted me to know how sorry he was and that he was thinking of me,” said Moorhead, who never expected a call. “My mother was really impressed.”
Reagan was impressed, too, for he later asked Beth Moorhead to work for him in Washington, a chance she turned down because it came so soon after her first husband’s passing.
In October 1981, Moorhead and her current husband, Jack, visited the president in Washington, D.C., along with Grass Valley resident Ed Sylvester and his wife.
Beth Moorhead looks back on those times fondly and speaks haltingly of the Alzheimer’s that eventually robbed Reagan of his faculties. Beth Moorhead’s own sister has the illness, as did her late father.
“I know it’s a terrible loss, but it’s so hard on the family,” Beth Moorhead said of living with an Alzheimer’s sufferer. “It’s devastating to walk into a room and know your father has no idea who you are.”
And so Moorhead’s thoughts turn to Nancy Reagan, who shielded her husband from the press and cared for him for 10 years after he first disclosed his illness.
“I know his first thought was always about Nancy,” Moorhead said.
Today, while the nation mourns, Moorhead will mourn, too, for the man she considered a friend of the United States, and of hers, for more than five decades.
“He was a person,” she said, “who gave us strength to believe in our country again.”
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