SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — From quiet, tearful individuals to multi-generational families, more than 3,000 people passed by the casket of Nancy Reagan to pay their respects in the first day of a public viewing.
Roy Dillard, who at 80 was typical of the age of most of the visitors, also brought two of his daughters and his 3-year-old great-granddaughter to honor the legacy of what he called “the greatest president of my lifetime” at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where the former first lady lay in repose on Wednesday, the first of three days of mourning that conclude with Friday’s funeral.
Dillard’s daughter Bobbie Eldridge said she admired how the first lady “stood by her man, the great and beautiful love that they had and how she became his caretaker” in old age.
Dillard’s family had driven more than 100 miles from Bakersfield to the library in Simi Valley. Retired teacher Mary Ellen Gruendyke drove nearly as far from her Riverside home, and appeared with a colorful Ronald Reagan souvenir scarf around her neck.
“Ronald Reagan was one of the best presidents we’ve ever had,” Gruendyke said, “and I admired them both as a couple for their love story and the support they showed to each other.”
Many cited that love story as the thing most in their thoughts as they stood at the casket, including 52-year-old Daniel Blatt of West Hollywood, who left in tears after paying his respects.
“He wouldn’t have been anything without her by his side,” Blatt said.
Shuttles bused groups of mourners to take turns walking quietly in a circle around the casket covered in white roses and peonies — Mrs. Reagan’s favorite flower.
Another day of public viewing comes Thursday.
Wednesday began at a Santa Monica funeral home with a 45-mile motorcade that carried Nancy Reagan’s casket down an empty freeway lined with saluting firefighters and mourners holding hands over their hearts in tribute.
Mrs. Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, will be laid to rest just inches from the president on a hillside tomb in the hills above Simi Valley, facing west toward the Pacific Ocean.
At the library, a military honor guard carried the casket between two identical towering portraits of the diminutive Mrs. Reagan wearing a long, red dress and then past a gurgling courtyard fountain. The casket was placed in a lobby behind a bronze statue of a smiling Ronald Reagan holding a cowboy hat.
The Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis, dressed in black, was among about 20 family members and close friends who attended a short prayer service beside the closed casket.
“May angels surround her and saints release her to Jesus,” the Rev. Stuart Kenworthy, vicar at the Washington National Cathedral, said during a short eulogy.
The Rev. Donn Moomaw, the Reagan family’s pastor, read from the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Attendees included the children of Ronald Reagan’s son Michael and Dennis Revell, the widower of the president’s late daughter Maureen. Michael Reagan and the president’s other son, Ron Prescott Reagan, are expected at Friday’s funeral.
After the prayers, Davis led mourners in taking turns to pay their respects, standing quietly by her mother’s casket. The final one was Mrs. Reagan’s spokeswoman, Joanne Drake, who fought back tears.
When the private service ended, House Speaker Paul Ryan bowed his head at the casket, made the sign of the cross and clasped his hands in prayer for about a minute.
A media pool report from the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.