Ronald Reagan was a man who had it all. It is difficult to identify an American who lived a fuller, or greater, life—what he understatedly called "An American Life." In nearly everything he did, Reagan succeeded wildly. When he left his parents’ home in 1932, he landed a coveted job in radio. Then came the movies and television, in the heyday of each medium. In the 1930s, when most of America suffered, Reagan soared.

By the 1940s, he was one of the top box office draws in Hollywood and received more fan mail than any actor at Warner Brothers except Errol Flynn. His hosting of the number-one rated television show GE Theatre from 1954 to 1962 made him one of the most recognized names in America.

Of course, after that, he entered politics and twice won the governorship of the nation’s largest state and the presidency of the world’s most powerful nation. And I’m certain that his epitaph will be that he was the president who won the Cold War.

Where did this record of achievement begin? It started with humble origins: at the Rock River at Lowell Park in Dixon, Illinois, where a teenage Reagan lifeguarded seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day, for seven summers. He was the rock at the Rock River, always watching. He saved the lives of 77 people there: "One of the proudest statistics of my life," he said later. Saving a drowning victim is not easy under any circumstance, but it was especially difficult in the treacherous Rock River, where the swirling water is so deep and murky that swimming there today has long been banned.

Still, the job was a labor of love for Reagan. "My beloved lifeguarding," he later called it. Even when Alzheimer’s meant he couldn’t recognize his closest friends when they visited him in his Los Angeles office in the 1990s, Reagan could point to the painting on his wall, a colorful illustration of the spot where he patrolled the Rock River, and longingly reminisce.

On November 5, 1994, Ronald Reagan handwrote a letter informing the world that Alzheimer’s disease was riding him into “the sunset of my life.” That choice of words was astonishing: Alzheimer’s is a horrific disease that robs memories. In just a few years, Reagan wouldn’t even remember the White House.Of course, after that, he entered politics and twice won the governorship of the nation’s largest state and the presidency of the world’s most powerful nation. And I’m certain that his epitaph will be that he was the president who won the Cold War.

Where did this record of achievement begin? It started with humble origins: at the Rock River at Lowell Park in Dixon, Illinois, where a teenage Reagan lifeguarded seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day, for seven summers. He was the rock at the Rock River, always watching. He saved the lives of 77 people there: "One of the proudest statistics of my life," he said later. Saving a drowning victim is not easy under any circumstance, but it was especially difficult in the treacherous Rock River, where the swirling water is so deep and murky that swimming there today has long been banned.

Still, the job was a labor of love for Reagan. "My beloved lifeguarding," he later called it. Even when Alzheimer’s meant he couldn’t recognize his closest friends when they visited him in his Los Angeles office in the 1990s, Reagan could point to the painting on his wall, a colorful illustration of the spot where he patrolled the Rock River, and longingly reminisce.

On November 5, 1994, Ronald Reagan handwrote a letter informing the world that Alzheimer’s disease was riding him into “the sunset of my life.” That choice of words was astonishing: Alzheimer’s is a horrific disease that robs memories. In just a few years, Reagan wouldn’t even remember the White House.