Remarks at a Ford's Theatre Benefit Gala

April 8, 1984

The President. Nancy and I are honored to be here tonight. And I know I speak for everyone in the audience when I thank Bill Schustik, the playwright, for the play, and the entire cast of ``On Shiloh Hill'' for that magnificent performance.

Ford's Theatre opened in 1863. I wasn't here at that point but -- [laughter] -- but it was a year when most Americans were farmers, and people still sang folk songs like ``Shoofly.'' The street outside was a dirt road, and America was locked in a Civil War that ravaged thousands of acres and tens of thousands of lives. In one titanic struggle that gave tonight's play its name, the Battle of Shiloh, more than 20,000 soldiers were cut down.

Few burdens can compare with those that were borne by the men and women who lived in this city during those bitter years. And yet even then, Washingtonians could gather at Ford's Theatre as we've gathered tonight to see the latest play, to enjoy relief from the troubles of the day. Congressmen, Senators, Mr. Lincoln, himself, found their duties easier because they could seek an evening of entertainment at Ford's.

This theatre demonstrated during the years that whatever events demand the Nation's attention, the arts must always have their place. Today Ford's Theatre is still giving Americans uplift and inspiration. And in keeping Ford's an active, vibrant institution, all of you testify to the importance of remembering our own history and witness the central place of the arts in our lives and set a fine example of the kind of private support that we've given in this country to such rich -- given it such a rich cultural life.

Hundreds of people deserve thanks, as you were told. But as executive producer of Ford's, Frankie Hewitt, of course, played the central role in making possible this wonderful evening and every evening in this theatre.

Then there are the board of governors, the sponsors, the patrons, and the contributors. But tonight does belong to one woman who has given of herself to Ford's, to the city, and to everyone fortunate enough to know her -- Mildred O'Neill.

Now, Mildred, you may have suspected now and then that from time to time your husband and I find something about which we disagree. [Laughter] But there is one thing that we sure agree on -- he's lucky, mighty lucky, to be the man in your life. On behalf of everybody with whom you work, your work for this grand, old theatre has meant so much, Millie, that we all thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

And now, the lady -- the man whose life I'm lucky to be in -- [laughter] -- has a word to say.


Mrs. Reagan. Thank you, Mr. President. [Laughter]

It's always such a special pleasure to be in Ford's Theatre, and tonight I feel doubly honored to have the privilege of giving a unique award to a wonderful lady. Millie O'Neill, as most of us know, moved to Washington permanently when her husband was elected as Speaker of the House. Ford's Theatre was the first organization she became involved with in our Nation's Capital, and 7 years later she's been unanimously chosen to receive the Lincoln Medal for her generous support of the Theatre.

It would be impossible to tell you everything that Millie has done for Ford's, but I do want to make special mention of her help in raising almost $4 million for the Theatre over the last 5 years.

On behalf of the board of trustees of Ford's Theatre and everyone who applauds the live theater program at Ford's, I'm honored to present the Lincoln Medal to Mrs. Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr.

Mrs. O'Neill. Thank you, Nancy, very much. And, Mr. President, I want to thank you so much for sharing your very precious time with Ford's Theatre to make our gala so successful. Thank you.

Mr. Speaker, thank you. [Laughter]

I'm delighted to receive this award and be included in the very prestigious group who have been honorees before me. I am just delighted. But I have said many times before that anything that I have done for Ford's Theatre has been a labor of love. I've enjoyed every minute of it.

There aren't enough medals around for everyone that should be awarded. I would like to share this and accept it in the name of all the very wonderful men and women who have performed here at the galas, and also to the wonderful friends of Ford's who have been so very generous and gracious when I came begging -- and I came begging very often.

I thank you all, and I'm truly very gratefully yours. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 9:58 p.m. at the theatre following the performance and remarks by Frankie Hewitt.