'President Reagan Visits Geneva'—30 Years Ago Today

Kurt Wehrmeister: A remembrance of my one day as a “White House correspondent.” It was enough.

We found out about it, and then it happened, and then it was over, basically before we knew what hit us. But you do tend to remember it forever when you’re standing in the same small room with the president of the United States.

Thirty years ago today—Thursday, April 15, 1982—I got up earlier than normal, put on the best of the five suits I then owned, and spent the first six hours of my workday doing exactly what I was told to do at any given moment by large, dour-faced men with two-way radios; treated like an errant 4-year-old for the most part. Because that’s what your workday is like when your job is to cover the president—which is what mine was that day.

I was not quite 25 and not quite three years into my first job out of college, as an assistant editor of The Geneva Republican, a then-4,000-circulation (all paid!) weekly newspaper which took seriously its role as this community’s “newspaper of record”—meaning among other things that if the City Council decided to raise water and sewer rates, we took as many column-inches as we needed to thoroughly explain to residents why, and how much more they would be paying. (Yes, community newspapers actually used to do this sort of thing, before they could shove you off to spreadsheets on websites.)

My point here, though, is that I covered zoning hearings, and Park District ice-cream socials, and basketball games—and not the utterances of the president of the United States. But for one day, 30 years ago today, that changed. And while it was interesting and certainly memorable—the next day, I was frankly glad to get back to what I was accustomed to. Because that day I learned the dirty little secret—that while “White House Correspondent” looks really impressive on a business card, the reality of it can be pretty boring, even demeaning, with a whole lot of military-style “hurry-up-and-wait” thrown in.

At roughly midday of Wednesday, April 14—as we rushed through pasteup of the next day’s regular weekly edition—my boss, editor David Rogers, had informed my colleague Dianne Herschelman and me that he’d just confirmed what had been rumored for the previous 24 hours: that for the first time since Teddy Roosevelt’s brief whistle-stop in 1905, Geneva was going to be visited by a president of the United States.

Ronald Reagan, you see, wanted to promote his idea of instituting income-tax credits that would help middle-class parents to pay tuition for parochial and other private schools. He wanted to do it in conjunction with a visit to Chicago for another function on Thursday evening.

And so, thanks primarily to a suggestion by longtime Kane County GOP political organizer Terry DesCoteaux, plans were swiftly put in place for an early-Thursday-afternoon appearance in Geneva, at . The two major factors behind this quick decision by the White House: St. Peter was one of very few Chicago-area Catholic schools not on pre-Easter spring break that week (they instead followed the Geneva District 304 calendar), and perhaps most importantly, its huge parking lot could comfortably accommodate the four necessary large military helicopters carrying the president and his traveling staff—and the White House press corps.

Dave Rogers told me with a smile that Wednesday afternoon that while Reidar Hahn of Chronicle Newspapers would be the only local news photographer allowed in the classroom where the president would speak (and would then share his negatives with all other local print media—then only the Chronicle and The Beacon-News), I had been likewise selected as the “pool reporter” who would then share his copy with the other two local papers. I immediately asked whether I could use a cassette recorder; Dave said he wasn’t sure. I decided to take it and hope.

On Thursday morning, after picking up White House credentials at a temporary office set up in the St. Peter rectory, I spent the entire morning and noon hour of April 15, 1982, standing and getting sunburned in a roped-off area with all other Chicago-area print and broadcast reporters outside St. Peter School as a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered around me. (Fortunately the skies were clear, and the day’s high temperature was a higher-than-average 70.) For some reason, the only Chicago reporter I recall recognizing was the late Paul Hogan from NBC5.

I recall there being a water jug for us—but if we needed to use a washroom, we were told by the uniformed Secret Service guy assigned to us, we should move swiftly to one of the port-a-potties perhaps 30 yards away in the parking lot, “and be quick about it.” Twice during the morning, evidently to give the guy something to do, each of us was “wanded” to make sure we weren’t carrying ... what? A handgun? A bag of weed? Who knows.

“I’ve been standing here the whole time,” I said to the guy.

“Just turn around, sir,” he responded.

And I was told I had to leave my cassette recorder outside; somehow Dianne Herschelman was informed to come get it from me. So a notebook and pen were all I’d carry into the classroom.

Finally, I think right around 12:30 p.m., the four large helicopters arrived and descended—with the White House press corps pouring out of theirs first, within seconds after it alighted. After a few more moments, our rope was pulled aside, and another plainclothes guy with aviator sunglasses and an earphone commanded, “OK, let’s move!” And the dozen or so of us were hustled over to the St. Peter foyer door, where we blended in with the White House reporters also being hustled in. There resulted, of course, a logjam at the door, with more than three dozen media people clutching notebooks, cameras and sound equipment. As we pushed toward the door, someone continued to insistently say, “Move swiftly!”

In this well-dressed scrum, I reached back to make sure I still had an extra pen in a pocket—and was mortified to feel my elbow come into not-quite-gentle contact with a woman’s breast behind me. I looked back to see the glowering face of CBS’s Lesley Stahl, muttering an oath under her breath as we kept crowding toward the door.

She did not add, “Welcome to my life.” But she could have.

There were roughly 20 wide-eyed eighth-graders in the small classroom, the shades of which had already been drawn in deference to the needs of the TV cameras. There were easily twice as many sweating journalists squeezed around the perimeter of the room.

Then, finally, sweeping effortlessly into the room was the expensively-suited Ronald Reagan, perhaps 8 feet from me. He perched casually on the teacher’s desk and began to speak—and that’s the last I recall seeing of him, over the next 10 minutes or so we were all in that room ... because I’d never taken notes so furiously, before or probably since. There were moments that it was tough to hear—because every time Reagan gestured, the cacophony of camera shutters all around me was deafening.

And as soon as it began, it was over. David, Dianne and I returned to the office and spent the evening cranking out a four-page extra, to be produced on heavier-than-normal stock, printed sheetfed right there at 17 N. First St., and Second-Class mailed to our subscribers (90 percent of Geneva’s households!) the next day. To this day, I’m proud of that little “extra,” and the fact that David Rogers and Allen Mead committed to producing it and mailing it, with no advertising—all cost, no revenue.

“What the hell, it’s history,” Dave said that night with a grin. Indeed it was.

And thus ended my single day as a “White House reporter.” It was plenty. Lesley Stahl could have the gig, I thought.

She certainly didn’t want to see ME again anytime soon.


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