"He was so inspirational and so optimistic," said McClain, who met Reagan after the speech. "He was the perfect antidote to an era in the 1970s when the country and its morale were so low after so many years of humiliation at home and abroad. We had endured the loss of the Vietnam War, gone through Watergate and we were suffering through horrible economic times and Jimmy Carter's malaise.
"Americans were looking for someone who really could bring change and do it with an upbeat attitude. And Republicans were hungry for someone who could put a new face on the party as well as take back the White House."
Reagan went on to win the White House two years later, serve two terms and set in motion the "Reagan Revolution," which featured cutting taxes, trimming some parts of the budget, building up the military and helping to write the final chapter of the life of the Soviet Union. In the process, he became a "true American hero," McClain said.
"He was the right man at the right time. He renewed our beaten-down American spirit. He made us proud to be Americans again."
He was at Elmwood Inn in 1976
McClain and several other local Republicans fondly remembered their hero in interviews Sunday, a day after Reagan's death at age 93. Some of them had met him at Republican events around the state, including a party in 1976 at the Elmwood Inn in Perryville where he was guest of honor. Others knew him only from his televised speeches and from media accounts. All of them revered him.
"My heroes have always been cowboys, and Ronald Reagan was a cowboy in the most positive sense of that word," said Alberta Wood, a longtime leader of the local Republican Party.
Reagan's emphasis on "family values" and a "very strong military" appealed to Wood, but she most appreciated what she saw as the centerpiece of his administration - reducing the size of government.
"He always said that government is the problem, not the solution, and he did his best to get government out of our lives, through tax cuts and cuts in some spending," she said. "I loved his message that government can only do what you cannot do for yourself."
With the help of a friend, Wood was able to see Reagan at a fund-raiser.
"He was a beautiful man, both inside as well as outside," she said. "I had a feeling he would go on to become a great president because he was a great man."
Turbyfill both "saddened and elated" at the news
Basil Turbyfill, deputy secretary of the state Finance and Administration Cabinet and long active in local, state and national Republican Party organizations and campaigns, said he was both "saddened and elated" at the news of Reagan's death.
"His passing obviously is a sad event, but I also have a sense of elation because all of the stories and pictures now running on TV and in the newspapers surrounding his death remind us all of how Reagan not only transformed the Republican Party and America but also the world," said Turbyfill, who had met Reagan several times over the years.
Through an "unswerving conviction" and "unquestioned integrity and character," Reagan was able to defeat the Soviet Union and deal a big blow to communism, Turbyfill said. He said he was able to see the Soviet Union in what were to be its last days.
"I visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s and found the people to be enslaved and miserable," said Turbyfill, who, as mayor of Athens, Tenn., at the time, was on a trip sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the U.S. State Department. "I also was in Poland and saw trainloads of produce heading toward Russia. Things were so bad in Russia that it had to rely on its satellite countries to provide its people the basics in food.
"From all accounts things have improved dramatically for the Russian people and the people in its former slave states since the fall of the Soviet empire a few years later, and that fall was hastened by Ronald Reagan," he said. "He told Gorbachev to 'tear down this wall' and we all have seen what happened when the wall came down."
Ernie Holman Jr., a Perryville businessman and a former chairman of the Boyle GOP, said he was drawn to Reagan because he was "down to earth" and "told it like it was."