WILKES-BARRE — The country lost a former first lady Sunday while Seymour and Evelyn Holtzman lost a close friend.
The Holtzmans recalled their friendship with Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at the age of 94.
“She was a very good friend and a wonderful lady,” Seymour said from Florida. “President Reagan was always so nice to everybody and sometimes people tried to take advantage of him. Nancy was his guardian. She protected him in all ways.”
The Holtzmans visited the Reagans often — in Washington, D.C., and in California at the Reagan ranch. When President Reagan returned to the White House following the 1980 assassination attempt, Seymour said he and his wife were two of just 10 people gathered in the Rose Garden to welcome him home.
“I still remember the helicopter landing,” he said. “We were very glad to see him again, and we felt honored to be a part of his welcome home.”
The Holtzmans have several photos of their times with the Reagans — at state dinners at the White House, on horseback and even in the Holtzman’s backyard in Kingston.
“In 1979, when Mr. Reagan announced he was running for president, we held a fundraiser at our house,” Evelyn said. “It was only the second fundraiser for him in Pennsylvania.”
The Holtzmans have a picture of that event signed by the former first lady.
The Holtzmans also attended a controversial 1982 dinner at the White House that featured Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Holtzmans said it was the first state dinner that Nancy Reagan had.
“We were invited and we have a picture of my wife shaking hands with Nancy and Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak of Egypt. The dinner featured new White House china that was termed “extravagant.” The controversy subsided when it was revealed that the cost of the dinnerware was covered by a private donation.
“That was the dinner when there was all that hub-bub about the new china for the White House dining room,” Seymour said. “Later that night, Nancy Reagan called Evelyn and they talked for 20 minutes.”
And then there was the time that President Reagan and Nancy invited the Holtzmans to an event at the Kennedy Center. The Reagans were unable to attend, so the Holtzmans sat in the president’s box.
“There we were and everybody in the building was turning around to see who was sitting in the president’s box,” Seymour said. “And we got to meet Elizabeth Taylor, who was performing that night.”
The Holtzmans said their son, Marc, is now working in Hong Kong. When Reagan ran for the presidency in 1979, Marc was named campaign director for Pennsylvania.
“Marc was just 19 years old,” Syemour said. “He dropped out of Lehigh University to work on that campaign.”
Former congressman remembers
Former congressman Jim Nelligan, of Harvey Lake, won the 10th Congressional seat in 1979 and went to Washington with Reagan. The two became friends, Nelligan said, always taking the opportunity to tell the president a joke when they were together.
“Nancy was always alongside her husband,” Nelligan said. “When I came through a receiving line at a Christmas party in 1982, I told the president another joke and it got a good laugh out of him. I then shook hands with Nancy and she said, ‘I know, you’re always able to get a laugh out of my husband.’ Her passing is a real shame. What a power she was behind the scene.”
Nelligan said President Reagan sent him birthday greetings, and he always mentioned Nancy in the cards.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said he and his wife, Mary Grace, were greatly saddened by the news of Reagan’s death.
“Her long life was filled with the love of family and countless friends, and love of country,” Barletta said. “Most of all, she was devoted to her husband of 52 years until his own death in 2004.
“President Ronald Reagan, I believe, was the greatest president of my lifetime.”
Barletta said Nancy Reagan’s grace and compassion will long be remembered.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Reagan family and their many friends,” he said.
Working with the Reagans
Bob Davison, originally from Wilkes-Barre — he’s a graduate of Meyers High School and King’s College — is an attorney now residing in Dallas. Davison served in various positions during all eight years of the Reagan administration.
“I was part of Reagan’s advance team,” Davison said. “We did site surveys in locations the president was to visit.”
Davison said Nancy was a very strong woman.
“Her job as she saw it, was to protect her husband, the president,” Davison said. “She wasn’t much of a politician, but she knew people and she knew there were some people out there who didn’t have her husband’s best interests in mind. She was a zealous protector of her husband.”
Davison said Nancy had an on-stage and off-stage persona. He said he dealt with her on several official events.
“She always expected the best from her husband, and for her husband,” he said. “She was never mean, but she got a bad rap that was unfair. And if anybody tried to assert something over on her husband, God help them.”
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, said like many of her generation, she cast her first vote for President Reagan.
“It was at a time when Americans were looking for a leader to restore faith in our nation,” Baker said. “Nancy Reagan redefined the role of first lady. She was a fierce ally and loyal supporter to her husband during and after his years of service. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends as they mourn her passing.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.