Nils Rueckert: Past Rotary President fascinated by U.S. presidents and their libraries
By Peggy Kelly
Santa Paula News
Published: February 13, 2013
Nils Rueckert is a serious collector of memorabilia and experiences related to presidents of the United States - perhaps it takes one to know one.
Rueckert is past president of Santa Paula Rotary, and for more than a decade he has served as a docent at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
“I’d like to tell you a little about my interest in the history of presidents and their libraries” that “range from Boston to Michigan, south to Arkansas and Texas and across the Midwest out to California.” Rueckert’s fascination with presidents started in his native Baltimore when at age 9 he was gifted with a book that detailed each U.S. president, including then President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“It’s still etched in my memory, hearing the news the day he died in April 1945... I was helping my Dad with yard work when a neighbor stepped out on her back porch and yelled to us that she had just heard on the radio that the president had died.” The local newspaper with the news of Roosevelt’s passing was saved by Rueckert’s parents: “Thus began my collection of newspapers announcing the election, and passing, of each president in the almost 70 years since,” featured in a California Oil Museum exhibit five years ago.
In September Rueckert and other Reagan Library docents visited four Midwest presidential libraries: Hoover in Iowa, Lincoln in Illinois, Truman in Missouri and Eisenhower in Kansas. These are not libraries in the usual sense, said Rueckert, but rather archives and museums “that preserve the written record and history of a particular U.S. president. Before today’s libraries, many former presidential papers and records were disbursed anywhere and everywhere; they were lost, destroyed, sold for profit, or some ruined by poor storage conditions.
“Roosevelt sought a better alternative,” and while still in office raised private funds and built a library in 1941 to house his personal collections, which Rueckert said were then turned over to the federal government, “starting a tradition that continues today.” Documents generated by each administration and thousands of artifacts - such as Eisenhower’s jacket and even Truman’s car - are now turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration and then to each respective presidential library for storage, display and research.
At the Reagan Library are millions of pages of records, over 1.5 million still photos, hundreds of thousands of feet of motion picture film, tens of thousands of videotapes, audio recordings and 16,000 books. Copies of every major evening news broadcast for the eight years of the Reagan presidency are held at the library.
Said Rueckert, “Add to that some 60,000 gifts from private citizens and heads of state alike,” ranging from Reagan busts to saddles and paintings. Gifts over a nominal value are “considered the property of the American people, not personal gifts to the president.”
There are several local connections at the Reagan Library: Rotary Past President Bill Nash, who as a local volunteer firefighter responded to a 1993 fire near the library, later presented a fire helmet to the president during a visit by emergency responders.
The library also has a red booth from Chasen’s in Hollywood where Reagan proposed to Nancy; the Mupu Grill also has Chasen’s booths, acquired when the famous eatery closed. Rueckert said, “The principal of Briggs School, Brandon Gallagher, is the grandson of Chasen’s former longtime maitre’d.”
Rotarian Ernie Carlson met President and Mrs. Carter when he visited the Carter Library several years ago.
“There are two that I could have almost said I knew personally, but they didn’t make it to the White House,” said Rueckert. “Back in 2004 my former shipmate John Kerry ran on the Democratic ticket. From 1967 to 1968 I was his department head on the Navy’s guided missile cruiser USS Gridley. We were home ported in Long Beach, where I met my future wife Beverly. In 1968 we deployed to the western Pacific off Vietnam and later to the South Pacific.
“Four years later,” in the 2008 Presidential Election, “my Naval Academy classmate John McCain ran for president on the Republican ticket,” said Rueckert, who displayed his and McCain’s photos and bios from their 1958 class yearbook. Another Naval Academy alumnus who did make it to the White House was Jimmy Carter, who graduated with the Class of 1947.