When former President Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, he went directly to the people.
“It was so true of him, so symbolic Ronald Reagan,” the president’s former executive assistant, Peggy Grande, tells PEOPLE. “He spoke directly to the American people, frankly, forthrightly and with optimism.”
Grande is detailing her time with the late president – including those final years during which he was quietly robbed of his ability to communicate – in a new memoir, The President Will See You Now, out Feb. 21.
The now-49-year-old was first hired as a Reagan intern during her senior year of college in 1989, working in the former president’s California office. After graduation she was hired as executive assistant to Reagan’s chief of staff. She was promoted to Reagan’s executive assistant in 1993, eventually earning a place as a trusted member of his inner circle before she resigned in 1999.
“I was immediately comfortable with him,” she says of her first years under Reagan’s wing. “I realized what a warm and wonderful person he was. He had such a stability and calm about him. He treated a janitor with the same respect as he would a king or a queen.”
The early years with Reagan, before his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, were hectic and happy. Grande traveled with Reagan, met world leaders and relished her eventual role as his top assistant. But, with time, Grande began seeing troubling signs.
“This was before Google searches,” she explains, “There were a lot of little things along the way but [the elderly] can be quirky sometimes so I chalked it up to old age.”
Once he was in his office entertaining visitors – as he often did. He was telling a familiar story, one he told so often even Grande knew it word for word. “The story was flowing off his tongue effortlessly,” Grande writes in the memoir. “This was one of his greatest hits.”
Just before delivering the punch line, Reagan stopped. “He looked at me with a look I would eventually get to know very well but didn’t understand yet,” Grande writes. “I knew what he was supposed to say and he knew that he did, too. But it didn’t come out.”
She notes of watching Reagan’s decline, “It was heartbreaking.” It was months later – after a visit to the Mayo Clinic – that the former president learned he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. In November of 1994, Reagan wrote a letter to the public announcing his diagnosis.
“It was a crazy time. The world was starting to say goodbye but I was still saying good morning to him every day at the office. We were deluged every day with sad goodbyes and heartfelt letters,” she says. “For five years after that letter was written he was still coming into the office every day.”
Grande says she and Reagan never really talked about his disease: “It was unspoken. It was the elephant in the room.”
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She says of the former president, “There was a sense of calm and peace about him, even in the last years. He was always elegant and graceful, even as he declined. He had to be in incredible personal turmoil but he presented the same peacefulness always and he gave people around him a sense of peacefulness.”
Reagan died at his California home in June 2004. He was 93.
It was earlier that year – February – that Grande saw the former president for the last time. He seemed unsure of who she was, but Grande, sitting at his bedside at his home, wanted to tell him how important he was to her.
“I was holding his hand and telling him how much he meant to me,” she says. “I said goodbye to him… knowing I’d never see him again. I leaned over and I gave him a kiss and said ‘ Thank you Mr. President for everything.’ It was hard to walk away.”
The President Will See You Now will be available for purchase on Tuesday.
– With LINDSAY KIMBLE