From Santa Barbara News-Press - Learning about Reagan:Students glimpse late president's life in cross-country trip

Kathryn Watson, News-Press Staff Writer 
August 11, 2011

One might guess that complete strangers from three different countries -- Poland, the Czech Republic and the United States -- would have little in common.

But as 13 high-school-aged exchange students with Liberty Education Tours learned as they trekked across the country by plane and bus on a two-week tour of historic Ronald Reagan sites, people have certain commonalities that not even geographical and linguistic barriers can disguise for long.

"For me, it seems similar," 18-year-old Lucie Charvatova from the Czech Republic said of the assortment of students she had been traveling with from Washington, D.C., to California since Aug. 1.

The tour stopped Wednesday at the Reagan Ranch Center on State Street, and his home in Rancho Del Cielo.

The sponsored students hail from from downtown Los Angeles, to Nipomo, to Georgia and overseas. All were selected and sponsored by the Reagan Legacy Foundation for the purpose of simply giving them a flavor of the principles of freedom Mr. Reagan so dearly held. For many of the international students, this August visit was their first to the United States.

"I met so many interesting people and I improved my English skills," 18-year-old Konrad Jaworski of Poland told the News-Press outside the late president's residence at Rancho Del Cielo, where students had a private tour of the ranch from Young America's Foundation staff members and Michael Reagan himself, son of the late president.

Despite their differences, the students found common ground, with the Spanish-speaking Americans teaching their newfound friends Spanish, and the Polish students teaching their native tongue to their American peers.

The tour, a part of the Michael Reagan-founded Reagan Legacy Foundation, was open to any European or American high school student with at least one year remaining of their secondary education, and a grade point average of 2.0 on a 4.0 scale to qualify.

At the ranch, Michael Reagan shared his fond memories of the 688-acre property and 1,600-square-foot home, where he and his children would visit for special occasions like Thanksgiving dinner.

"Everything is there the way that he left it," Michael Reagan told the students of his father's residence.

Students were enthralled by stories of "Rawhide," the Secret Service code name for the powerful man who loved to spend his free hours riding horses on the trails he cut with his own hands.

The ranch, as Michael Reagan and Young America's Foundation staff members explained, was Mr. Reagan's place to relax and rejuvenate, away from the demands and pressures of public life.

Undoubtedly, they said, Mr. Reagan was a president at all times, taking and making official calls and devising policies on the grounds of Rancho Del Cielo, which means "Ranch in the Sky" in Spanish. The late president even signed his famous tax-cutting bill, which slashed the top marginal tax rate from 70 to 28 percent, on the property almost exactly 30 years ago.

But the ranch tells the story not just of an American president, but of a down-to-earth person who cut wood with a chainsaw, enjoyed Louis L'Amour books and dearly loved his wife.

"There was no politics, just ranch stuff," the late president's son told the News-Press on the gravel grounds of the ranch. "The ranch was special for the family also, because it was out of the political realm, which made it really kind of special and nice."

Some students on the tour were fascinated by politics, like 17-year-old John Thomas Justus of Cleveland, Ga., who plans to run for a political office in the future. Others, like 17-year-old Aaron Booker from Los Angeles, weren't so much.

But for 12 days, the students from different national and ideological backgrounds were thrown together for 24 hours a day to discover firsthand the life of the man esteemed "The Great Communicator."

Aaron, who said the conservative realm was something new for him, was intrigued to see "a view from the other side."

Last year, a different group of students traveled throughout Europe through Liberty Education Tours. This year, the 100th anniversary of Mr. Reagan's birth, the students caught a glimpse of the path of his multifaceted life.

The trip, slated to culminate Friday at the Reagan Library with a special graduation ceremony for the students, began in Washington, D.C., where the group attended the 2011 National Conservative Student Conference.

From there, the group stopped in Illinois, where the late president was born and raised. For a handful of students, their favorite memories related to watching the Chicago Cubs play the Cincinnati Reds. To commemorate the Cubs' Ronald Reagan Day Celebration, Michael Reagan and his family threw out the first pitch.

Then they ventured to California.

For each student, the trip meant something slightly different -- and each had a slightly different highlight. While the trip wasn't necessarily transforming for some students politically, they seemed to agree that it was quite unforgettable.

"For me, it was Reagan's home in Tampico (Ill.),"18-year-old Anna Patryja Gzepiel of Poland said, calling the old residence the most memorable part of the trip for her.

"The view was amazing in Chicago," said 18-year-old Konrad Jaworski of Poland, who said he also thoroughly enjoyed eating hot dogs at the baseball game.

"I would just like to say that this has been a tremendous privilege to be chosen to go on this trip, especially this year, on the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth," Thomas said.

Anyone interested in Liberty Education tours can log onto www.reaganlegacyfoundation.org.