Ronald Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in an apartment on the second floor of a commercial building in Tampico, Illinois. He was the younger son of Nelle Clyde (née Wilson; 1883–1962) and Jack Reagan (1883–1941). Jack was a salesman and storyteller whose grandparents were Irish Catholic emigrants from County Tipperary, while Nelle was of half English and half Scottish descent (her mother was born in Surrey). Reagan's older brother, Neil Reagan (1908–1996), became an advertising executive.
Reagan's father nicknamed his son "Dutch", due to his "fat little Dutchman"-like appearance and "Dutchboy" haircut; the nickname stuck with him throughout his youth. Reagan's family briefly lived in several towns and cities in Illinois, including Monmouth, Galesburg, and Chicago. In 1919, they returned to Tampico and lived above the H. C. Pitney Variety Store until finally settling in Dixon. After his election as president, Reagan resided in the upstairs White House private quarters, and he would quip that he was "living above the store again".
Ronald Reagan wrote that his mother "always expected to find the best in people and often did". She attended the Disciples of Christ church regularly and was active, and very influential, within it; she frequently led Sunday school services and gave the Bible readings to the congregation during the services. A strong believer in the power of prayer, she led prayer meetings at church and was in charge of mid-week prayers when the pastor was out of town. Her strong commitment to the church is what induced her son Ronald to become a Protestant Christian rather than a Roman Catholic like his father. He also stated that she strongly influenced his own beliefs: "I know that she planted that faith very deeply in me." For example, Ronald Reagan attended Eureka College, founded by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1855. While pursuing the degree he earned in economics-sociology in 1932, Ronald Reagan continued to be surrounded with the same faith his mother had introduced in his life.
According to Paul Kengor, author of God and Ronald Reagan, Reagan had a particularly strong faith in the goodness of people; this faith stemmed from the optimistic faith of his mother and the Disciples of Christ faith, into which he was baptized in 1922. For that period of time, which was long before the civil rights movement, Reagan's opposition to racial discrimination was unusual and commendable. He recalled the time in Dixon when the proprietor of a local inn would not allow black people to stay there, and he brought them back to his house. His mother invited them to stay overnight and have breakfast the next morning. After the closure of the Pitney Store in 1920 and the family's move to Dixon, the midwestern "small universe" had a lasting impression on Reagan.
Reagan attended Dixon High School, where he developed interests in acting, sports, and storytelling. His first job involved working as a lifeguard at the Rock River in Lowell Park in 1927. Over a six-year period, Reagan reportedly performed 77 rescues as a lifeguard. He attended Eureka College, a Disciples-oriented liberal arts school, where he became a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, a cheerleader, and studied economics and sociology. While involved, the Miller Center of Public Affairs described him as an "indifferent student". He majored in economics and sociology and graduated with a C grade. He developed a reputation as a "jack of all trades", excelling in campus politics, sports, and theater. He was a member of the team and captain of the swim team. He was elected student body president and led a student revolt against the college president after the president tried to cut back the faculty.