Fighting Spirit

updated 08/27/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/2001 01:00AM

When Maureen Reagan took the podium in Sacramento last year to press California lawmakers for money to fight Alzheimer's disease, a reporter asked her why she was there. She was weakened by her own struggle with skin cancer, she said, but had come because her father was suffering from Alzheimer's. And, she added, "so you'll show up." It was vintage Maureen—direct, sassy, politically astute. "Her dogged determination was so much there in everything she did," says Orien Reid, chairwoman of the Alzheimer's Association. "She made people want to listen to her."

Best known as the daughter of a famous couple—President Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, 87—Maureen became noted as an outspoken fighter. She took on women's rights, spousal abuse and, finally, melanoma—a battle she lost. A 1997 operation to remove a lesion on her thigh was thought to be a success, but the cancer reappeared last summer in her groin and spread to her brain. She died Aug. 8 at age 60 at her home near Sacramento.

By her side were her husband of 20 years, public relations executive Dennis Revell, 48, and their daughter Rita, 16. Maureen was, Revell said in a statement, an "intelligent, vivacious and articulate woman with an indomitable spirit." (A public memorial was planned for Aug. 18 at Sacramento's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.) Nancy Reagan broke the news to her 90-year-old husband, who is in the latter stages of his memory-robbing disease, that the daughter he called Mermie was gone. "Ronnie and I loved Mermie very much," the former First Lady, 80, said in a statement. "We will miss her terribly."

Maureen had worked hard in recent years to bond with Nancy. Not always fond of her stepmother, and even distant from her father after he split with Wyman in 1948, she grew closer to both during his White House years. She came to call Nancy Mom and often visited the Reagans' Bel Air, Calif., home. She was moved by Nancy's devotion to her father: "There's a special place in heaven for caregivers." And Nancy admired Maureen's dedication to Rita, who was adopted from a Ugandan orphanage in 1994. "Maureen stepped into the role of motherhood so easily," she says. "Rita meant a great deal to her."

Maureen had a history of turning private anguish into public crusades. She revealed in her 1989 memoir First Father, First Daughter that she had been beaten by a former husband, a Washington, D.C., police officer—though she never named him or filed charges. Afterward she sought funding for shelters for abused women. The book also recounts her lonely childhood as the older of Reagan and Wyman's two children. (Her brother Michael, now 56, is a talk show host in L.A.) Maureen was 7 when her parents split and she was sent to boarding school. Her father rarely made it to school functions and was increasingly busy with his new family and political career. Still, she said, "to me, he will always be the bronze Adonis who used to throw me in the swimming pool to see if I knew how to swim."

Maureen entered adulthood adrift. She dropped out of Marymount College in Arlington, Va., and moved to D.C., where she married and soon divorced her abusive husband. She returned to California, where she wed Marine Corps Lt. David Sills in 1964, though they split three years later. She acted on TV shows such as The Partridge Family and Marcus Welby, M.D., but realized her calling was in politics, stumping first for Richard Nixon in 1960.

When committed to an issue, she wasn't afraid to disagree with her father. During his 1980 presidential bid they held opposite views on the Equal Rights Amendment. Maureen's response was to design campaign buttons emblazoned with the letters E-R-A. "But when you got up close," recalls brother Michael, "you saw in very small letters the words [E]lect [R]eagan [A]nyway."

She made two unsuccessful bids for public office—first for U.S. Senate in 1982 (over her father's objections) and in 1992 for a congressional seat (this time with his support but against a seasoned local pol). Still, she thrived as cochair of the Republican National Committee and as head of the 1985 U.S. delegation to the United Nations Decade for Women conference in Kenya. She always shared her adventures with her father. "His face lit up every time he saw her," says Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's former press secretary.

To the end Maureen gained strength from the former President, says Reid of the Alzheimer's Association. When she visited her in the hospital last February, Reid saw a photo of him by the bedside. Maureen said simply, "He's my hero."

Christina Cheakalos
Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Karen Grigsby Bates and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

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