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"Tribute" ~ A portrait for President Reagan, a true horseman

Updated: Jul 7


Portrait of President Reagan's Arabian Stallion El Alamein by Kim McElroy Prints and Posters available at www.spiritofhorse.com

"Tribute" by Kim McElroy

My Opportunity

The experience of meeting former President Reagan changed my life, not only because I had the opportunity to meet a celebrity, but because I set an intention to do something so far beyond anything I ever thought I could achieve, and years later, that reality was manifested.


In 1980, when I was fourteen years old , Jose’ Lopez Portillo, the President of Mexico, gave an inauguration gift to Governor Ronald Reagan of an Arabian Stallion named El Alamein. Years later, a family friend sent me pictures of President Reagan’s beautiful white stallion, and I hoped to one day paint him.


By the fall of 1994, I was a professional equine artist. That year I hired a public relations firm for advertising consulting. Among their credentials was the fact that several of the associates had been part of President Reagan’s White House staff. When I discovered this connection, I told them of my desire to paint the former president’s horse. I wondered if it would be possible to give the portrait to him as a gift. The associates were intrigued by the idea, and they agreed to contact Reagan’s office, but they made no promises. I began the portrait without any knowledge if it would ever reach the former President.


Photo from Platinum Performance The Horseman Article

A photo that hangs in the Secret Service Command Post at Rancho del Cielo, of a Agent John Barletta atop Gualianco, riding next to President Reagan astride his constant mount El Alamein.

Photo courtesy of Young America's Foundation Reagan Ranch Center


The Inspiration for the Art

Inspiration can be a fascinating subconscious process and I am con­stantly amazed at the way it works. When I began the painting, I wanted to depict the beauty of the white stallion as pastel on white silk. I had used this technique with several other pieces, and the trick is to get it right the first time, because there is no erasing on silk.


Considering an abstract color background, I did some test swatches of color. I was thinking of adjectives such as regal and royal and I put down an emerald green, then I tried navy blue, and then crimson red. As I visualized the white horse against the colors, I remember the thoughts came into my mind as I compared colors, “White, red, blue…” And then it was obvious – the background was of the Ameri­can flag.


An Unforeseen Chain of Events

Shortly after I completed the original, President Reagan announced to the world that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease and was retiring from public life. I realized that due to his seclusion, it was unlikely I would be able to present the portrait to him. But then word came; we got a call on February 5th. President Reagan’s office staff planned to celebrate his birthday as a private occasion on February 8th. They wanted me to present the portrait in person. 


Three days later, after a memorable shopping trip to buy clothes worthy of a presidential event, my mother and business partner, Kay, and I were on a plane to Los Angeles, California with David Rabin, Reagan’s former staff member from the PR Firm. When the gate attendant commented on our formal attire for such an early flight,  we told her of the occasion, and she was so taken with the story that she upgraded us to fly First Class!

 

When we arrived at President Reagan’s office in Century City, California, the security cleared us and a secret service agent rode up with us in the elevator. He checked out the padded bag and the painting. When he saw it he smiled and said, “Hey, its El Alamein!” I said, “Yes, it’s a gift. I was hoping I might get the chance to meet the horse someday, too.” He shook his head and said, “Unfortunately, he died about three years ago. He was President Reagan’s favorite horse.” I was sorry to hear about this and knew that the gift would have even more meaning.


I kept trying to repeat in my mind the few things I had memorized to say to him, but of course, this all flew out the window as we entered his office. President Reagan came in with his staff shortly thereafter. He didn't know what the occasion was because the portrait was a surprise. I was introduced to him, and we shook hands. He smiled and grasped mine warmly, and then we turned on cue for the photographer.  It was a surreal experience. I became aware I was standing there holding President Reagan’s hand. Then a moment of brevity happened. There was a slight delay in the introductions of my mother, and so in her outspoken fashion she stepped forward and boldly introduced herself by saying, “Hi, I’m Mom!”  He didn’t skip a beat and laughed as he shook her hand. The laughter put us all at ease, and I proceeded with the presentation.


My mother introduces herself


By the time the moment arrived for the presentation, I was in a state of suspended animation. Of course, I can't remember what I said, but it was something like “I am honored to present you my portrait of your horse El Alamein”.  As I turned the portrait around to face him, his eyes lit up with joy and he said, "You did this for me?" It wasn’t a memory lapse talking, it was from his heart. It was as if the painting had dissolved any formality of the occasion, and for that moment he wasn’t a president, he was a man who loved his horse. We experienced a heart-to-heart connection.

 He smiled from ear to ear and said, "It is beautiful” The cloudy day suddenly cleared, and he commented on the change. He looked around his office and said, "I want to hang this in here." His PA glanced around his office, full of important mementos and presidential plaques, and smiled wryly as she asked, "Where?" He said. "We'll find a place." It seemed unlikely this would be possible, but the fact that he wanted it in his office gave me a sense of how much value he placed on it.

 

When I had first come up with the idea, I admit that I was hoping to be featured in People Magazine with my art in hand. However, after the event I realized I was grateful that there weren't more attendees or pomp and circumstance in the presentation, because the experience allowed me to connect with President Reagan personally, and that experience was priceless.


President Reagan and Kim McElroy

Kim shaking hands with President Reagan


Kim presents portrait to President Reagan

Kim presents her portrait of El Alamein to President Reagan


It is said that great men often have a love for horses. I have watched documentaries on Reagan about his love for horses, and about how his time spent at the ranch wasn’t just recreational, it was a necessity for his well-being. Rather than merely a reflection of his ego, horses, and the wisdom they embodied, were an inextricable part of his psyche.

 

Years later, when I watched the televised coverage of President Reagan's funeral, my personal experience having met him made the coverage even more impactful. As the jets flew over the Reagan ranch in tribute, I unmistakably heard the distant whinny of a horse. I visualized the glorious white stallion, El Alamein, arriving to offer Ronald Reagan a ride home.



Read more in this story by Jessie Bengoa:

President Reagan’s Deep Love of the Horse; Remembered by His Longtime Friend, Riding Partner & Secret Service Agent

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What an honour! I enjoyed this blog the most of any I have ever read by Kim. 😀

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Thank you Rosemary so glad you enjoyed it ! It's amazing to look back at pictures of myself 29 years ago !

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