Locals recall encounters with Reagan
Nevada County is 3,000 miles from the nation’s capital, and its population base will probably never be the pendulum that determines the direction of California’s voters.
But the county’s political pull was strong enough to affect the lives of those who remember meeting Ronald Reagan long after his visits to the area became part of history.
In the living room of her Morgan Ranch home, Dorie Clinch, 79, holds tightly to a framed photograph of Reagan taken during a visit to the Nevada County Fairgrounds in July 1966. Her husband, the late Republican activist and hardware store owner Downey Clinch, is posing with the eventual governor. In it, Reagan wrote at the bottom:
“To Downey Clinch, ‘Mr. Republican of Nevada County.’ With best wishes, Ronald Reagan.”
The picture was taken between campaign stops in Chico and Lake Tahoe. Downey Clinch, who died in 1991 at age 74, flew Reagan from Chico to the fairgrounds, where Reagan spoke to a group of Jaycees. Clinch then drove his wife, Reagan and lieutenant governor candidate Robert Finch to Lake Tahoe for another speech.
Grass Valley historian and editor Robert Wyckoff, then a young reporter, was taking notes and pictures when the Jaycees presented Reagan with a black cowboy hat.
“Not all good guys wear white hats,” Reagan quipped that day, Wyckoff recalled.
Dorie Clinch said she was afraid of talking to Reagan on the way to the lake, sitting quietly in the back seat of the car until mustering the courage to interrupt him with a question.
“He was as friendly and as nice as you hear about him now,” she said. “He was willing to share in the conversation.
“He was a man of the people, who always looked on the bright side of things.”
Downey Clinch, whose family spans seven generations in Grass Valley, was a key organizer with the Nevada County Republican Central Committee, selling tickets to the annual summer barbecue and drumming up support for candidates.
Politics ran almost as close to his heart as his family and ownership in two Alpha Hardware stores. His grandfather had been a member of the California contingent of Republican delegates in political conventions during the first ten years of the 20th century, Dorie Clinch said.
In an October 1950 photograph, a young Downey Clinch and his father, C.R. Clinch, posed with U.S. Senate hopeful Richard M. Nixon after the future president gave a speech at the Empire Mine.
But it was Reagan, Dorie Clinch said, who epitomized honest politics for her husband.
An unexpected call
Reagan’s time in Grass Valley wasn’t always political.
Sharon Tobiassen will never forget the day Reagan placed a special call to her daughter Aleacha Kathleen, 23, who was recovering in October 1989 from a heart-lung transplant at Stanford University Medical Center.
A friend, Donn Zea, who was an assistant to then-California Assemblyman Chris Chandler, thought of the idea after hearing how Reagan placed a congratulatory phone call to former USC quarterback Todd Marinovich after a convincing victory weeks earlier.
He knew how Sharon’s husband, Dave, a county supervisor and former Nevada City councilman, admired the former president.
“I had to convince (Reagan’s people) that this was something more special than the hundreds of requests that he gets,” said Zea, now president of the California Forest Products Commission. “(Aleacha) needed to be on his short list.”
Sharon Tobiassen remembered how the hospital staff had to sterilize the telephone before her daughter could use it. Reagan called, and when Alecha answered, no one was on the line. She hung up, and the room, filled with members of the family, gasped. Reagan quickly called back, Sharon Tobiassen said, and he spent 10 minutes talking to Aleacha.
“It was no doubt a turning point in her later short life,” said Sharon Tobiassen, whose daughter died three months later. “We were great fans of his because of his concern about people, his charisma.”
Years ago, Reagan rode horses on a 100-acre ranch near Running M Drive and Highway 49, on ranch land owned now by Grass Valley resident Mike Blagg, said Felicia Tracy of Grass Valley, whose family lived next door to the ranch.
Tracy later taught Reagan’s son, Ronnie, in a cooking class at the Webb School for Boys in Claremont.
Florence Pecunier, who now lives in the Ponderosa Pines area just south of Grass Valley, has Reagan’s signature to remember him by.
It’s etched on a white cast made after she broke her leg nearly 23 years ago.
It was a gesture of thanks, she said, for working for Reagan’s chief executive secretary, Edwin Meese, during Reagan’s time as governor.
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