Reagan was born in the family home above the bakery and general store where his father worked in Tampico, Illinois. The baby Reagan was given the nickname "Dutch" because Jack said that he looked like a "fat Dutchman" and the name stuck. His older brother Neil (nicknamed Moon because of his resemblance to the comic strip character Moon Mullins) had been born in 1908. It was difficult pregnancy and Nellie's doctor recommended that she not have any more children. Nellie had left the Catholic Church in 1910 to join the Disciples of Christ, a theologically liberal sect with strong abolitionist sentiments. Her husband's binge drinking likely played a significant part in her motivation to convert to this denomination.
Young Ronald Reagan's first performance on stage was said to be playing roles in temperance themed plays that his mother wrote for her church. Jack worked at various jobs including as a shoe salesman, but hard drinking and hard times combined to keep the family in poverty. The family moved around a number of times. They moved to Chicago when Ronald Reagan was three where Jack sold shoes in the Fair Store on State Street (that great street). He lost that job after he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Jack lost another job in Galesburg due to his drinking. The family moved to Monmouth where Nellie almost died during the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918. From there they moved to Tampico and then to Dixon where the family lived in five different homes.
By age 10, Ronald Reagan had lived in at least ten different homes. Because of this he was unable to cultivate lasting childhood friendships and was said to have spent a lot of time in solitary pursuits such as swimming, skating, and horseback riding. Poor eyesight frustrated his abilities as a baseball player. Reagan liked to read as a youth, with his favorite authors said to be Zane Grey, Horatio Alger, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The Reagans lived in Dixon until Ronald Reagan was twenty-one. It was a town of about 8,000 people and the main industry was dairy farming. Though Reagan would later present fond childhood memories of the Norman Rockwell variety, his brother Neil had less nostalgic memories, including his father's drinking and how he would either drink away the Christmas present money, or overspend on things the family couldn't afford. Ronald Reagan recalled, when he was 11 years old, finding his father passed out in the snow at the back of the family home.
Reagan continued to pursue acting when he attended North Dixon High School, where he was president of the Drama Club. He wrote school plays and starred in them, doing so as a means of escaping an unhappy home life. His high school yearbook showed his motto as "Life is just one grand sweet song, so start the music", predicting the life of an optimist. This was a line from a poem he wrote called Life. Despite not yet hitting his growth spurt (he was just 5'3" in high school), he played football and excelled as a swimmer, becoming certified as a lifeguard at the local YMCA. At age 16 he worked seven days a week as a lifeguard at nearby Lowell Park for $15 a week. He had to perform rescues and even artificial respiration on occasion.
His high school girlfriend was Margaret Cleaver and it was her father, a minister at a local church, who taught Reagan to drive, and helped him to get into Eureka College, an institution run by the Disciples of Christ. He used his lifeguarding money, as well as an athletic scholarship to pay his tuition and washed dishes to support himself. His grades were not great, but he was said to have succeeded because of an excellent memory.
When the Great Depression hit, Jack worked as a travelling salesman, and his drinking problem was compounded with his marital infidelity. Jack was fired from his salesman job, but was saved due to his allegiance to the Democratic Party, which managed to provide him with a job in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, distributing food stamps. Reagan's parents did instill the value of rejection of racism. When two African-American football players from another city were denied hotel accommodation, Regan brought them home to stay at his house, with his parents' blessing.
Reagan and Margaret Cleaver became engaged in 1932 when they graduated from Eureka, but the two soon began to drift apart. Margaret was a strong scholar, finishing at the top of her class, and while she had ambition, she saw him as directionless at the time. The engagement was broken off in 1934. Reagan went on to a career in radio, which led to the movies, and to the fame that would propel him to the presidency.