5/4/09 Ronald Reagan, the secret handshake and me.

In 1976 Ronald Reagan brought his Presidential campaign to Winston- Salem, N.C. I had just started as a reporter at WXII-TV there and at the last minute, the assignment director sent me to the hotel where Reagan was to speak at a fundraising dinner. The assignment desk didn’t know the only window reporters would have with Governor Reagan was at a6 PM news conference, just before the dinner. Cameras would be allowed to cover the speech in the hotel ballroom, but Reagan would not be available for one on one interviews and he would not be available after the news conference.


I arrived at the hotel just as the press conference was ending and Reagan was moving down to the ballroom. The other reporters were packing their gear as I walked in and realized what had happened. I walked up to Reagan and remembered he was a member of my college
fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon (I was a TKE at East Carolina, Reagan was a TKE at Eureka College). Almost without thinking I gave him the secret handshake and explained my predicament…getting the assignment too late to make the news conference.


Reagan smiled and said “We can work this out. Follow me into the ballroom and have your crew set up near the platform. When you see me put down my tableware after the main course, give me a sign and I’ll come over.”


I had my cameraman set up audience left, just off of the speaker’s platform and waited. All the other news crews, having already shot the news conference were at a table in the back chowing down on the free food.


After a deadly hour of introductions and speeches by local politicians, the main course was done and dessert was still to be served. All the time I was watching Reagan, wondering if he would
remember our deal. A couple of minutes later he put down his silverware and looked my way. I pointed to our camera location and he got up. Now, Reagan was already a 66-year-old man…but I’ll never forget how he never even looked for steps from the stage, but walked to the rail at the end and just vaulted over it.


I don’t remember the questions I asked that night, but I do remember two things. First he gave me a great one on one interview that led our news, and second, all the other reporters, when they saw Reagan come over to me rushed to get their gear and come over. They arrived just as Reagan climbed back over the rail for dessert.


The competition could only ask “What the hell was that?” “How’d you get him to do that…what did he say?” I replied “No worry boys, it’ll all be in the paper in the morning, and of course on WXII at eleven.”


I smiled all the way back to work and had a warm place for Ronald Reagan ever since.