Mourners pay respect for former first lady Nancy Reagan

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White House / MGN

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) – Three days of formal mourning for former first lady Nancy Reagan began Wednesday as her casket was taken in a police-escorted motorcade up an empty freeway for a public viewing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The procession from Santa Monica passed beneath a large American flag on a stretch of normally congested highway and then turned onto the Ronald Reagan Freeway where firefighters in dress blues saluted from atop fire trucks parked on overpasses and other observers held their hands over their hearts.

As the procession turned up the long, steep driveway to the library in the hills of Simi Valley, more than 100 docents held small flags.

Members of the armed services carried the casket past a gurgling courtyard fountain into the library, where daughter Patti Davis, dressed in black, was among about 20 family members and close friends who attended a short prayer service at the closed casket.

“May angels surround her and saints release her to Jesus,” the Rev. Stuart Kenworthy, vicar at the Washington National Cathedral, said during the 10-minute service.

The Rev. Donn Moomaw, the Reagan family’s pastor, read from the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Attendees included the children of Ronald Reagan’s son Michael and Dennis Revell, the widower of the president’s late daughter Maureen. Michael Reagan and the president’s other son, Ron Prescott Reagan, are expected at Friday’s funeral.

After the private service, House Speaker Paul Ryan paid his respects, bowing his head in prayer aside the casket and making the sign of the cross.

The casket was covered in white roses and peonies, Mrs. Reagan’s favorite flower.

Earlier in the day, after a short private service at a Santa Monica funeral home, the casket was carried by pallbearers that included members of Reagan’s Secret Service detail to a hearse for the final 45-mile journey to the hill country northwest of Los Angeles where two days of public viewing precede the funeral.

Several hundred onlookers stretched along the boulevard leading away from the Tudor-style funeral home, holding up cellphones and cameras to capture photos.

“She was just a very classy woman, always,” said Jeanie Maurello, a medical assistant at Providence St. John’s Health Center. “I thought she did a wonderful job. ‘Just Say No’ to drugs, she was behind all that.”

Another medical assistant, Lupe Salazar, said she was also an admirer. “She did a lot of work that helped the country,” Salazar said.

Maurello added: “There’s always a great woman behind every great man.”

Friday will be the funeral, which was planned down to the smallest details by the former first lady herself. Just as she was always by his side in life, Nancy Reagan will be laid to rest just inches from her husband on a hillside tomb facing west toward the Pacific Ocean.

Before her death she planned the funeral’s flower arrangements, the music to be played by a Marine Corps band and the people who received invitations to the private memorial.

Among those who had RSVP’d for the service were former President George W. Bush and his wife, former first lady Laura Bush; former first lady Rosalynn Carter; first lady Michelle Obama; and former first lady Hillary Clinton.

“No doubt about it, the most important of her special requests was that she be laid to rest right next to the president, as close as possible,” said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.

The hourlong service, to which approximately 1,000 people have been invited, was to take place on the library’s lawn.

Those with White House connections who have said they will attend include President Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia Nixon Cox and President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson. Other guests will include Katie Couric, Chris Matthews, Newt and Callista Gingrich, Anjelica Houston, Wayne Newton and Mr. T, the Ronald Reagan Foundation said Wednesday. Mr. T was involved in Mrs. Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug efforts during the 1980s.

Capt. Christopher Bolt, commanding officer of the USS Ronald Reagan, will also be in attendance.

“One of our saddest situations is we have so many people who have called or written, saying they would like to attend, but unfortunately it needs to be by invitation only because we only have so much room on the lawn,” Heubusch said. “As a result, Mrs. Reagan was very adamant about having some time where the public could come by and pay last respects.”

Public viewings are scheduled at the library from 1 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday.

First ladies’ funerals, once a quiet affair, changed significantly following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1962.

Mrs. Roosevelt, a United Nations delegate, author and prominent political figure in her own right, tried to keep the event fairly quiet, limiting the guest list to 250 people, although those guests included President John F. Kennedy, former Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and future President Lyndon Johnson. More than 1,000 mourners jammed the streets outside the church in Hyde Park, New York.

The most recent first lady’s funeral was for President Gerald Ford’s widow, Betty, in 2011. Some 800 people, including Mrs. Reagan, attended a private memorial service for her in Palm Springs, California, followed by a second, smaller service in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

When former President Richard Nixon’s wife, Pat, died in 1993 some 4,000 people attended a public viewing for her at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. A private service took place the next day, and Mrs. Reagan and her husband were among those who attended.

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