Many people have reflected on the passing of former first lady Nancy Reagan. Indiana’s Republican leaders in Congress expressed their condolences and Gov. Mike Pence ordered flags lowered to half-staff in her honor. Funeral services are scheduled for Friday. But only a few people can say that they knew Mrs. Reagan or even met her. However one Hoosier can say with conviction that he probably wouldn’t be the man he is today without her support and encouragement.
Kevin Wanzer is a nationally recognized motivational comedian. He’s a certified speaking professional and a member of the National Speaker’s Association. Kevin has spent decades traveling the country and the world speaking to schools, colleges and businesses on achieving personal excellence, and making positive choices at school, in the workplace and in life. Wanzer is incredibly gifted at what he does — using his personal brand of comedy and life experiences to create a message of positive living and empowerment.
Nancy Reagan, as first lady of the United States, started Wanzer on that path.
In the mid-‘80s when Wanzer was a student at North Central High School, he got involved in a group called P.U.S.H. — Prevention Using Student Help. High school students went to Washington Township’s middle schools and elementary schools with a drug use prevention education curriculum. The concept was for older kids to serve as mentors and role models to younger students, encouraging them not to succumb to drugs.
“For me, it was an excuse, for one, to stay drug free because I felt like I needed a good excuse as to why I didn’t use,” says Wanzer. “And two, it was a platform for me to starting using comedy because I knew I loved comedy. So I would just incorporate that in what we would do here in Washington Township.”
Wanzer got more and more involved in P.U.S.H. It started at school which led to state level involvement through Indiana Federation of Communities for a Drug-Free Youth. Then it was on to the National Federation of Parents for a Drug-Free Youth. Wanzer’s participation earned him an invitation to a national conference. He was told first lady Nancy Reagan would be there. Reagan was just beginning her interest in the drug-free youth movement. Wanzer didn’t know she would be attending the very session where he would give his presentation.
“I mean I had a Ronald Reagan mask on and I was doing material about him and I told my story about what we were doing in Indianapolis,” says Wanzer.
Not only did Wanzer give his presentation in front of Mrs. Reagan, but he also got to sit next to her at a banquet.
“We just had a blast,” says Wanzer. “I was asking her things like, ‘so what’s it like living in the White House?’ These were questions I was able to ask her that no one had probably ever asked her. ‘Is it fun? Can you do anything?’”
Wanzer talked to Reagan like she was a regular person. He even asked her if she could paint the White House — as in the exterior of the historic structure. And she loved every minute of it.
“At the end she said, ‘ I have never met anyone like you before. You are one of the most unique persons I’ve ever met,’” remembers Wanzer. “Then she said, ‘I want you to understand that is a good thing.’ I just remember her making that point so that I understood that what she said was a compliment and not like, “You’re really weird.” I just thought that was crazy and that was really great.”
Wanzer told the first lady he would love to help in any way he could and she took him up on his offer. Wanzer became involved in what would eventually become Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. He was at the White House for the kick off of the campaign and traveled the country on her behalf doing “Just Say No” presentations. His presentation companion at the time was actor Soleil Moon Frye, who was known at that time for role in the TV sitcom Punky Brewster. Wanzer traveled everywhere on behalf of the White House.
The trips around the nation continued through high school and into Wanzer’s first few years in college. President Ronald Reagan named Wanzer to the Council for a Drug-Free America. He was the youngest presidential appointee in American history — a record Wanzer believes holds true today.
“It was all because of Mrs. Reagan,” says Wanzer. “All I did was give a speech about staying drug-free and having a good disposition and looking for the good in life.”
Reagan also tapped Wanzer once again, this time to accompany her to the United Nations in New York.
“So I spoke at the U.N. with her,” says Wanzer. “It was myself and one other young man who was recovering. So it was kind of both sides of the world — one who had been drug-free forever and then someone who had a story.”
Looking back, Wanzer says the entire experience is still kind of surreal, almost bizarre. But he will always remember Nancy Reagan as a kind, sweet, funny woman who passionately loved her husband.
“One of the things I loved about her most was the way she talked about her husband,” says Wanzer. “ I remember thinking my parents love each other, but I never felt like they loved each other the way she talked about him. You could just tell that she just adored the president, which was cool.”
Once President Reagan was out of office Wanzer lost touch with the first lady. But her friendship and influence brought Wanzer’s life career to the forefront. For years he continued on with the drug-free message as he mastered his craft. He has since broadened his message to include bullying prevention and student empowerment.
As a gay man in a happy marriage with a teenage son, Wanzer doesn’t dwell on the politics when it comes to his memories of the Reagans. He simply maintains a fondness for the woman who found a teenage boy unique and inspiring.
“I don’t want to say that 100 percent of everything that I do is because of Mrs. Reagan,” says Wanzer. “But there is no way I would have ever had the opportunity to speak and to be able to have the platforms that I had around the country without her believing in me.”
The inspiration that Nancy Reagan gave to Wanzer is exactly what he tries to do with every speaking engagement that he does now.
“When she found kids that she really believed in, she stuck with it and put them to work and… I don’t know it was an amazing gift,” says Wanzer. “It really helped me as an adult value young people. When they get a spark in them, when a kid expresses an interest in something, [it’s about] really nurturing that because sometimes all it takes is a kind word from an adult to really empower a kid to do some extraordinary things.”