Many people I meet in Europe look clueless when I tell them I am from Illinois, but their faces light up when I add,  “from the Land of Lincoln.”  They may be unable to locate my home state on a map, but they have heard of Abraham Lincoln.

February is a fitting time for Presidents’ Day, which commemorates their birthdays on the third Monday of the month, in honor of our first President’s birthday, George Washington.

Abraham Lincoln’s was born February 12th.  If Ronald Reagan had lived, he would have turned one hundred on Feb. 6th.

My grandfather, who passed away at age 96, almost made it to the century mark. Even in old age, he never forgot his own birthday.  Hard for a guy to forget, when a President of the United States called up every year to remind you.

Coach Mac & President Reagan in the Oval Office - courtesy White House photography

Now what kind of a man – who knew the glamour of Hollywood and the glory of the White House – would remain kind enough to call his old college coach every year to extend well wishes?  Reagan played right guard for my grandpa, Coach Mac, at Eureka College from 1928-1932.  Though grandpa remembered Reagan for being a better orator than athlete, the relationship forged on a football field at the small private, Christian school in central Illinois lasted a lifetime. “Dutch” Reagan and Coach Mac remained together for every crucial moment of each other’s career.

Reagan delivered my grandfather’s retirement testimonial speech at Northern Illinois University and presented his award at the Washington D.C.Touchdown Club.  Coach Mac attended Reagan’s Presidential Inauguration and dined at the White House.  When my grandpa under went hip surgery, Reagan’s White House doctors’ consulted with my grandpa’s surgeon.

Whether one agreed with Reagan’s conservative policy or not, history will remember our 40th President (1981-1989) as a gifted communicator whose vision led to sustained economic growth, an end to the Cold War, and a restoration of the nation’s confidence.

When I look back, I will remember the man from humble beginnings, who grew up a stone’s throw from my hometown, who found it fitting to honor my grandpa, also of modest origins, with a phone call every year.

Put party loyalties and politics aside. And though indebted Illinois has it’s share of problems, I take pride knowing my home state helped shape a few good leaders, from Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, to Ronald Reagan in Eureka, to President Barack Obama in Chicago.

Illinois is a good place to grow up; February is a good month for birthdays.