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Ronald Reagan & the Huntsville Connection

An Inside Look at the Reagan Presidential Library

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President Reagan with Jim Powers family

Jim Powers family with President Regan, Christmas 1998

From escorting a Faberge egg across country in first class to guiding President Reagan and movie stars through the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, one Huntsville man says he's had an upclose and personal look at the Museum honoring our 40th President.

Jim Powers, Director of Burritt on the Mountain--A Living Museum in Huntsville, Alabama, says he was sitting at home, minding his own business, when he got a phone call in 1997 from his former Kansas Museum of History boss Mark Hunt. Hunt was then Director of the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. Hunt was looking for a new Curator for the Presidential Library and asked Powers to apply. After flying to California twice to interview before a panel which included Mrs. Reagan, Powers was hired in March 1998.

The Presidential Library is divided into two parts: The Archives, which includes all the papers of the President's administration and The Museum, which included all the gifts that President & Mrs. Reagan received during his Presidency that were valued over $25. This amounted to over 100,000 items including everything from postcards from schoolchildren to diamond-studded tiaras and designer gowns. Under Federal Law, anything over $25 was considered the property of the United States and was in the possession of the Museum, which is operated by the National Archives and Records Administration with support from The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. As Curator, Powers and his staff were in charge of exhibits in the Museum.

In 1998, although his health was failing, President Reagan was still visiting his Presidential Library & Museum once a month. It was Powers job to show him around the new exhibits whenever he came. The President's visits were always unscheduled for security reasons and the Museum staff were usually given only a 15-minute warning that the President was on his way from his home in Bel-Air. Accompanied by two Secret Service Agents, Powers & the President would walk through the museum. Powers recalls that President Reagan often stopped by something in the exhibits and commented, "I remember that." After all, everything in the collection was from his term as President. On one occasion, the Republican Women's Club was meeting in a private room. Much to the Secret Service Agents' dismay, President Reagan insisted on stopping in to greet the ladies, who were delighted to see him. Forty-five minutes later after Mr. Reagan charmed and chatted with everyone, Powers was able to resume his gallery tour with the President.

There is a replica of the Oval Office in the Reagan Library and Powers said that President Reagan liked to go and sit behind the desk or the couch that came from the White House. Sometimes, meetings were held in the "Oval Office." In the Library, there is also a private quarters for the family that includes an office for the President and another one for the First Lady, a large living room for entertaining, a balcony, and a dining room that can seat about 50 people.

Highlights of Powers time at the Presidential Library included:

  • Leading now-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger through the Reagan Library. Powers comments: "he was nice and very intelligent."
  • Working with Katie Couric from ABC's Today Show as she did a feature on "From the Vault," an exhibit of some of the most interesting things in the Reagan collection. Powers remembers that Katie is just as nice and unassuming as she appears on television.
  • Going to the Reagan's home to borrow a personal Norman Rockwell painting of the President from Mrs. Reagan for a special "Norman Rockwell Paints the Presidents" exhibit. Powers comments that Mrs. Reagan invited him into the living room and had tears in her eyes as handed over the painting of her beloved husband.
  • Powers said, "When we did the Faberge exhibit, as part of the Forbes Magazine Collection’s requirements, I couriered the Nobel Ice Egg from New York. They required that I fly first class and purchase a first class seat for the egg. Had to take the egg with me to the bathroom. At either end I had to ride in an armored car with armed guards."

    Despite the glamour and unusual experiences at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, Jim Powers opted to return to the more serene (and less expensive!) life in Huntsville in July 1999 as Executive Director of the Burritt on the Mountain--A Living Museum, specializing in 1850-1900's lifestyle of North Alabama.

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