I remember reading about Glassboro’s history one day and saw that Ronald Reagan spoke at Glassboro High School’s 1986 Graduation. The 2016 Presidential Election has made me enthusiastic about learning about politics and political events in the United States. However, Reagan’s appearance in Glassboro didn’t seem to be a political event. It was a day the President of the United States was an ordinary American once again.
When Glassboro’s Graduates of 1986 heard that having a guest speaker forced their graduation date to be moved back three days, everyone assumed someone special was coming. Originally, members of the senior class were thinking that a celebrity was coming. Tom Cruise and Whitney Houston were a few of the names passed around the school. Eventually, the seniors learned that President Reagan would be taking stage at their graduation. The day came to graduate, and three class members I interviewed over the phone said the day went like this:
Eric Conklin: “Do you remember what people were
thinking when President Reagan first walked into the gymnasium?”
Denise Norton: “We knew that when the song came on he was coming in. If you’re at the football field, he came in one of the doors at that parking lot out there. He came through what was the weight room back then, and that’s where the Secret Service Detail was located. A man came on stage and introduced the President of the United States, and sure enough the music came, the Air Force Band was there playing, and sure enough there he came.
It was surreal. I had the excitement before hand. Not just the excitement of graduating, but because the President was there. It was when you saw him it was like, ‘Oh my God the President is really here. It’s a moment when you want to pinch yourself to make sure that you’re actually not dreaming.’ I know that’s the reaction I had, and I think a lot of my class mates had that same reaction as well.”
Conklin: “What were some of President Reagan’s reactions that day?”
Norton: “I can tell you he had a firm handshake, but I could tell he was a little nervous at first. He had a little bit of a shake to his hand. I wasn’t the only one nervous on that stage that day, so that was kind of interesting.”
Conklin: “Do you remember where he landed? I don’t know if this is correct, but I’ve heard he landed on the football field.”
Norton: “From what I heard, he landed on the field hockey field over where the tennis courts are.”
Conklin: “Did he hand you your diploma?”
Norton: “He didn’t hand us the diploma. He just shook our hands, they took a picture, and then we went through and got our diploma from I believe it was the superintendent. We shook his hand, the principles, and then the superintendent.”
Conklin: “If there was one thing you could take away from President Reagan speaking at your graduation, what would it be?”
Norton: “I’ll tell you what, he was a really a nice guy. He was down to earth. He might have been president, he might have been a politician, he might have been an actor, he might have been a lot of things. But that day, he was just a regular guy. He was like one of our friends. The way he spoke with us, the way he treated us, the way he acted toward us, it felt like we became friends with him.”
Ruth Cibo was class president in 1986. She had the opportunity to sit next to the president and remembers some of the small talk she had with him.
Conklin: “Can you recall any personal experiences you had with the president that day?”
Cibo: “When we were up on stage we were sitting next to each other. He leaned over to say something to me. He was pointing out the banners in the gym. Because we were in the
gym we had all the championship banners. He was pointing them out and he was saying, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of championships.’ It was just very small answers.
Conklin: “Did he say anything else to you besides the championship banners? Did you have any personal conversation?”
Cibo: “Personal conversation I’m going to say no. We didn’t get to talk to him. We gave him a sports jacket that was donated by Two Vics Sports Shop which is in Glassboro. When we gave him the jacket, it was kind of a funny story. My mom was all excited and we wanted to present him with a gift. My mom went to the store and she found three different kinds of wrapping paper. She wrapped it up and they had to unwrap. The Secret Service had to unwrap it. They couldn’t president it to the president wrapped up.”
Conklin: “Do you know the reason why President Reagan came to Glassboro High School?”
Cibo: “I think it was because of two things, the Glassboro Summit and the diversity of the town. For some reason I thought it had to do with being a multi-cultural class.”
Rebekah Byrer may not have been on the stage next to the President, but she still remembers shaking the President’s hand before receiving her diploma.
Conklin: “Does anything particular part of President Reagan’s appearance stick out to you?”
Bryrer: “We were set up and waiting, and then we heard noise as the helicopter landed, they came in and it started and he came up right to the podium.”
Conklin: What was preparation for the graduates like?”
Bryrer: “I remember practicing the walk and getting to our seat and following the rules like we were supposed to. They cancelled our final exams for that, so we didn’t even have final exams [Laughs].
Conklin: “Did you have any reactions with any of his staff?”
Bryrer: “We had interactions with a White House staffer who’s name I can’t recall. But he kept telling us he was pretty high up.”
Being a fan of history, I love learning about the past. Speaking with these three women allowed me to hear personal accounts of what this day at Glassboro High-School was like, which I often consider is the best way to learn history. Hearing personal stories – and not fictional stories – is what I’ve learned to enjoy the most about journalism. Journalist learn more from people who have a story to tell and see events like Reagan’s appearance in Glassboro from a first person point-of-view. In a way, journalism allows someone to travel back and learn more about the world they live in.
Special Thanks to Denise Norton, Ruth Cibo, and Rebeka Bryrer for sharing their experiences.
President Reagan’s entire speech at the 1986 Graduation is available to read at this link here.
President Obama also spoke at a Joplin High School’s graduation in 2012.