“In the end, the choice was clear,” explained Edmonds Kiwanian Juliana Van Buskirk who headed up the club’s 2022 Citizen of the Year selection panel. “Michael Reagan’s impact on our community over the years, his tireless passion to keep the memories of our fallen heroes alive through his art, and comfort this has brought to military families who have lost a loved one made him the obvious choice for this year’s honor.”
Reagan is a familiar figure in Edmonds, often seen on his daily pilgrimages from the Perrinville-area home he shares with wife Cheryl to the downtown Edmonds Veterans’ Plaza. On these walks, he never fails to carry an American flag in honor of those who served and those who didn’t come back, and always has a pocket full of dog biscuits for the canines he meets along the way. He loves stopping and speaking with those he meets, and confesses that he probably knows everyone — and their dogs — between his home and the veterans plaza.
“In my 42 years living in Edmonds. I’ve run and walked the streets for more than 80,000 miles,” he laughed. “I’ve gone through about as many pairs of shoes as dog biscuits! I love this town, and I love the people. It doesn’t matter what side of the political divide you’re on — I stay out of politics. I carry the American flag when I walk, and I think that attracts some folks to come and talk to me about what’s on their minds – if they feel strongly about something, are scared or worried. I find that people are more open in casual conversations on the street than in more formal situations.”
A Seattle native, Reagan grew up in several area neighborhoods and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1965. After a football injury put him on the sidelines, he tapped into his natural artistic talent to draw portraits of people he admired — Katherine Hepburn among them — and received so many compliments that he was moved to pursue a career as an artist and make it his life’s work.
But Vietnam put these plans on hold, so Reagan traded his sketch pad for an M-16 and went on serve in the conflict as a combat Marine. There, he would have the first of several pivotal experiences that would alter the course of his life.
“It was March 28, 1968,” he explained. “We were on patrol near the DMZ, and I was with another 19-year-old who had become my best friend, Vincent Santaniello from Queens, New York. We were hit by some fire, and Vinnie went down. I went over to him and took him in my arms – I could see immediately that he was in bad shape. I held him close. His dying words to me were ‘Mike, I just want to go home.’”
“This changed me forever,” he continued. “Vinnie has been with me ever since. He’s in my studio when I draw, he watches me, he’s with me when I walk, we talk about things. He is my muse.”
Returning to the U.S., Reagan again took up his art, concentrating on detailed portraits of a variety of subjects.
“I’ve drawn popes, presidents and plaintiffs,” he laughed. “I also did lots of charity work. Then one day out of the blue I got a call from NBC News saying they wanted to do a special on me focusing on my celebrity portraits. It aired, and my artwork was instantly displayed coast to coast – pretty heady stuff for an aspiring artist!
“Shortly after the story aired, I received another call out of the blue,” he continued. “This was not from a TV station, but from a woman in Boise, Idaho name Terese Johnson. who asked me ‘how much would you charge to draw my husband?’”
“I immediately thought ‘oh boy, I’m gonna be rich’ – NBC just showcased my art around the country, and now I have folks calling to commission art from me.”
But that thought changed in an instant – and became yet another life-altering experience for Reagan – when the next words out of her mouth were “My husband was a corpsman in Iraq – he was killed in action in 2003.”
“I served as a Vietnam combat Marine, and I saw what corpsmen do,” Reagan said. “They are the bravest people I know.”
She sent him a photo, he did the portrait, and sent it back to her, at no charge.
Shortly thereafter Reagan received a letter from Johnson.
“She told me that she pulled the portrait out of the envelope, looked into his eyes and started talking to him,” he related. “She told him all the things she needed to tell him, told him she loved him, and heard him say ‘I love you back and all is OK.’ She ended the letter by saying ‘last night was the first time I’ve slept all night in a year. Friends have tried to help me and be there for me, but I needed to speak to my husband to get closure and find peace. You and your portrait made that possible.’”
That set Reagan firmly on the path to where he is today.
“I told my wife Cheryl, ‘now I need to do them all’ – I assured her that it would work out, and it has.”
That was 20 years and more than 6,000 portraits ago, all done free of charge.
“It’s about the families, bringing them comfort and honoring their sacrifices,” Reagan stresses.
“I’m so totally honored to have been selected Edmonds Citizen of the Year,” he said. “I’m proud as heck. I don’t do what I do to be recognized – I do it because of the families.”
Reagan will receive his Citizen of the Year award during the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, June 8, starting at 11 a.m. at Thai Cottage restaurant. Tickets ware now on sale at edmondschamber.com
Also be sure to look for Michael in this year’s 4th of July parade riding in friend Bruce Nicholson’s classic black Ford convertible.
Learn more about Michael Reagan and his mission to bring comfort to military families through his art at the Fallen Heroes Project website.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel