Bayside Rep. recalls invite to Reagans

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At a time when her image was marred by perceived elitism, Ackerman devised a plan to depict her as a compassionate figure through her participation in a program sponsored by the Flushing Rotary Club.

"I got a call from Kurt (Weishaupt) and he was saying, 'I must speak to you. I must speak to you,'" Ackerman said of the man who was active in the Flushing Rotary and also with the Gift of Life program, which helps sick children in foreign countries get medical treatment in the United States.

Ackerman recounted the Gift of Life story in a phone interview with the TimesLedger Tuesday, just days after Ronald Reagan died, leaving the former first lady in mourning.

The Gift of Life program was boosted into the national spotlight by members of the Flushing Rotary Club, such as Weishaupt and the late Murray Seigel.

Weishaupt's urgent question for Ackerman centered around the president's first international trip after he was shot by John Hinkley in 1981.

President Ronald Reagan was traveling to Seoul, South Korea, where the Gift of Life program was providing sick children with medical treatment and the International Rotary organization was coincidentally meeting.

"(Weishaupt) said, 'Reagan is going to Korea and the International Rotary is convening in Seoul. Why can't we get the president of the United States to come to this Rotary convention?'" Ackerman remembers him asking.

"I got back to Washington and called the White House and said, 'I have something for the White House that is going to help the president and first lady so much. Being a Democrat I probably shouldn't be associated with it, but it's going to help people,'" Ackerman said.

In an hourlong meeting with a White House aide, Ackerman described a plan that would involve bringing Nancy Reagan to the International Rotary Club meeting where she would fall in love with two young Korean children and bring them back to America on Air Force One for the Rotary Club-sponsored surgeries that would save their lives.

"Every major paper in the country carried that picture," Ackerman said of the photo that was taken after Ronald and Nancy Reagan stepped out of the aircraft holding the hands of two young Korean children, both holding up small American flags in salute.

Frank Macchio, a Flushing Rotarian who also was heavily involved with the Gift of Life program, said Seigel and Weishaupt met the president and first lady at JFK Airport when they landed. The pair also were later photographed with the presidential couple at the White House, Macchio said.

Weishaupt was not available for comment Tuesday.

"The Gift of Life program got national acclaim," Ackerman said. "And Nancy Reagan then had a whole new reputation."

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

Updated 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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