If you don’t believe in miracles you won’t believe this,” says Juanita Booker of Paso Robles, Calif. She can barely believe it herself. But next Tuesday, when the Marine Band strikes up the National Anthem at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, it won’t be an opera star at the microphone but this 45-year-old sharecropper’s daughter—a woman who has never had the time, what with five children and her recent studies at beauty college, to take any singing lessons or learn to read music. Over the years Juanita’s head has been turned on occasion by compliments on her rich contralto voice, and she admits to fantasies of singing in Carnegie Hall. “I couldn’t even think about the White House,” she says. “I couldn’t aim that high.”
But Ronald Reagan never forgot a fund raiser in Paso Robles during his 1976 campaign for the Presidency at which Juanita sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic. “When he walked onstage there were tears in his eyes,” she recalls. “He gave me a hug and said, ‘I’ve heard that song many times, but never like that.’ ” He wrote later to say he wouldn’t forget her if he made it to Washington, but when he lost the nomination she thought that was the end of it.
Juanita was introduced to music in the cotton fields of Varner, Ark. as a little girl. “My family did most of our singing in the fields,” she remembers. “It made the sun not so hot and the work not so hard.” She married at 16 and moved to Paso Robles with husband Kennies, a butcher. As their children grew older (they are now aged 21 to 29), Juanita began singing at graduations, nursing homes and business meetings. Her reputation grew in her hometown but not much beyond. Then in 1976, as she puts it, “God put me in the right place at the right time.”
A registered Democrat who sat out the 1980 election, she has clearly been won over by Ronald Reagan. About three weeks after his election, one of his aides phoned, inviting her to appear. “Think of it—I’m not just Juanita Booker who sings for the community anymore,” she says. “I’m a star who sings for the President!”