Ronald Reagan's Son Shares Presidents' Day Memories — Including, Yes, a Raise in Allowance Tied to Taxes

Michael Reagan, now a dad and grandfather himself, whose work revolves around support for veterans and his dad's memory, says life has taught him a valuable lesson

President Ronald Reagan (L) with son Michael Reagan
Photo: Diana Walker/Getty Images

President Ronald Reagan would have been 111 years old on Feb. 6.

His eldest son, Michael Reagan, said marking the occasion this year at his father's presidential library in Simi Valley, California, was particularly touching.

"By edict, the president of the United States authorizes that every president on his birthday have a wreath laid at his grave site. So, every year on my dad's birthday, that's what happens," Michael, 76, told PEOPLE in a recent phone interview.

The U.S. Marine Corps' commanding general at Camp Pendleton conducted the ceremony, which included a color guard, chaplain, a brass quintet and a 21-gun salute.

"What was nice about this year was that we were able to have three generations," Michael says. "Myself ... my two children, Ashley Marie Reagan and Cameron Michael Reagan, my son and my daughter; and my son's two children, my grandchildren, Marilyn and Penelope Reagan."

Michael Reagan Eureka College
Reagan Legacy Foundation

Michael says he felt "pride more than anything else" at the commemorative event — "not sadness," because he feels "there's nothing to be sad about" when he thinks of his father, who died on June 5, 2004.

"He had a great life. He led a great life," President Reagan's son says. "He did great things in his life. I'm lucky enough to a member of the family and be brought into the family and be the eldest living child of the Reagan family. It's nice to be in that position and to really carry on the legacy and be able to tell the story that only I can tell because I go back to 1945, and nobody else goes back that far."

Michael's relationship with his dad has layers. In a 1980s memoir, he wrote bluntly of growing up the only son of Reagan and Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman, who adopted him when he was 3 days old. (Some of his siblings have likewise shared their own takes on the occasional tumult of their blended family.)

Now a dad and grandfather himself, whose work revolves around support for veterans and his dad's memory, Michael says his life has taught him a valuable lesson.

"When you're the son or daughter of somebody very famous, it's hard to find your own track, if you will, because you're always overshadowed," he says. "You can be angry and mad — or you can sit here and say, 'You know something? I'm very lucky to be in this position to be able to tell the stories and carry on and tell people Ronald Reagan was the first president to actually go to Normandy and speak on D-Day.' "

Ahead of President's Day, Michael, who is the chairman and president of The Reagan Legacy Foundation, shared anecdotes of life with his fahter, whose military service included the production of training films and documentaries.

"It brought me to tears the other day at the library, when they were singing the Marine Corps anthem … It took me back to when I was 7, 8 years old riding out to the ranch with my father where he would regale me with the songs of all the military," Michael says. "I learned about America sitting in the right front seat of a station wagon, riding out to my dad's ranch because I would ask questions with all these songs."

Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) and his wife, actress Jane Wyman (1917 - 2007) with their children Maureen and Michael, circa 1946
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Reagan divorced Wyman, with whom he also shared daughter Maureen, in 1948.

"I was 3 years old," Michael says. "If you remember, I was adopted into the family. But my father, even though he remarried in 1952 to [former First Lady Nancy Reagan], he didn't forget that he had another family."

Michael lived with his mother, who died in 2007 at 93, but spent time with his dad.

"He never forgot those Saturday mornings, picking us up, and driving us out to the ranch to ride horses and swim and shoot ground squirrels and chop wood, and all of those things," Michael says, adding that he "looked forward to Saturday mornings because Dad was going to pick you up in his station wagon and drive out there," playing games, listening to music and learning from his father.

The president's son got an early introduction to tax policy during one of those weekend drives with his dad, a Republican who remains one of the party's most iconic presidents (though his two-term administration also continues to inspire fierce debate over his slow-walking approach to AIDS).

President Reagan and Son Michael
Reagan Legacy Foundation

"My parents would give me a dollar a week allowance. That's it. You couldn't keep up with the Hope kids and the Crosby kids and all these other kids in Beverly Hills on a buck a week," Michael says, referring to famous childhood neighbors like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

"So I asked my dad for a raise at 8 years old. For the next 10, 15 minutes, I heard about the tax system in America. I heard how the government was taking 90 cents out of every dollar [for the highest earners in the country]," he continues. "With the 10 cents that was left, he had to take care of his first wife, my mother, myself, my sister Maureen, his new wife, Nancy, their new child Patty, the ranch, the foreman, the horses."

A young Michael — who at the time "didn't know Democrat from Republican," he said — was no match for the persuasive talents of the man who became known as the GOP's "Great Communicator."

"As we drove into the ranch that day, I offered him back half of my allowance. I felt so bad for him," Michael remembers. "He said, 'No, no, no.' He says, 'When a president of the United States gives me a tax break, I'll raise your allowance.' "

Michael Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Jr. and Nancy Reagan
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Years later, when tax rates did go down, Michael's allowance did indeed go up.

"He lived by his word. He lived by his handshake. He's from that generation: Shake hands, we've got a deal," Michael says. "He remembered the promise he made to this little kid in the station wagon, riding out to the ranch, about taxes in America. In 1964, when his taxes went down to 70 percent, he raised me from $1 to $5."

As part of his work with the Reagan Legacy Foundation, Michael is an avid supporter of World War II veterans and the service-members who lost their lives fighting in Europe. The Walkway to Victory Project, which places memorial bricks along a path at The Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, France.

Family members wishing to honor a loved one — or anyone who wants to contribute and preserve the memory of service — can order a brick online for $250. The bricks are made in England and shipped to France to be added to the walkway that so far contains about a 1,000, Michael says.

"To go there and see these World War II vets looking down and seeing someone remembered them and put their name on these bricks," he adds, "it just brings tears to your eyes, their eyes, and everybody's eyes. It really does."

President Reagan Cameron Reagan Michael Reagan Colleen Reagan Ashley Reagan building snowmen in Rose Garden
Reagan Legacy Foundation

Profits from the sale of the bricks go to a scholarship program for those serving on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered supercarrier based in Japan that was recently deployed to the Middle East to help with the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

"It's nice to be able to pay it forward from one generation to the next generation … It's incredible to meet these kids. The name on the back of the boat belongs to my dad. To be able to be on that ship and to share stories with them of my dad is amazing," Michael says.

"It gets them to know my father even more than just having his name on the back," he continues. "They get to actually meet someone and ask questions and hear stories and things. So if I can share those things with people, it really keeps the legacy alive of who he is and what he was and what he meant to the world."

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