Reagan's eldest, Maureen, dies of cancer

Maureen Reagan, who as the daughter of former President Reagan raised national awareness of Alzheimer's disease, died yesterday of malignant melanoma. She was 60.

The popular political activist, commentator and author died peacefully in her Granite Bay, Calif., home, near Sacramento, said her husband, Dennis Revell.

"Ronnie and I loved Mermie very much. We will miss her terribly," Nancy Reagan said in a statement released by Reagan chief-of-staff Joanne Drake. "Mermie" was the nickname bestowed on Ms. Reagan by her father.

"Maureen Reagan has been a special part of my life since I met Ronnie over 50 years ago," Mrs. Reagan said. "Like all fathers and daughters, there was a unique bond between them. Maureen had his gift of communication, his love of politics, and when she believed in a cause, she was not afraid to fight hard for it."

Ms. Reagan's battle with the deadly skin cancer, diagnosed in 1996, was private at first. But she broke her silence in 1998 after a yearlong course of treatment that pushed the disease into remission. The disease was found to have spread in late 2000.

The oldest of the former president's four children, Ms. Reagan embraced many roles, including entertainer, political analyst, political candidate, talk-show host and author.

She devoted most of her last years to raising awareness of the memory-robbing and fatal disease that made her father the world's most famous Alzheimer's patient. As a board member and No. 1 spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association, she raised millions of dollars to combat the malady that affects 4 million Americans.

She often put her father's illness and her obligations to the Alzheimer's Association ahead of her health.

"I consider this his unfinished work," she once told the Sacramento Bee. "If this were any other disease, my father would be out telling people what they needed to know."

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in July 2000, Ms. Reagan spoke movingly about the impact of Alzheimer's on her relationship with her father. Because Alzheimer's patients often are upset by changes in their environment, she said she learned to temper her natural ebullience around her father and make quiet entrances, to "kind of slide into a room" and to gently take her leave.

Although her father recognized her sporadically, Ms. Reagan, whose Secret Service code name was "Radiant," said she learned to find joy in their small moments together.

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is incurable once it has spread, and patients generally live six to 12 months. Each year, 40,000 new cases are diagnosed and 8,000 Americans die from it.

Ms. Reagan grew up in Hollywood. Her father and mother, actress Jane Wyman, divorced when she was 7 and she was packed off to a school in Palos Verdes, a seaside community in Los Angeles County, returning home on weekends. Her half-sister Patti, one of Ronald Reagan's two children with second wife Nancy, did not learn they were related until Patti was 7 and Maureen was 19.

After a year of college at Marymount in Arlington, Va., she dropped out and began working, then met and was married briefly to a Washington, D.C., policeman who beat her. They divorced in 1962. A second marriage, to a Marine lieutenant who became a lawyer, ended in divorce in 1968.

She married Revell, a Sacramento lobbyist and owner of a public-relations firm, in 1981. On one of several trips to Africa for her father, they met a Ugandan girl, Rita Mirembe, whom they adopted in 1994. Last month, President Bush signed into law a special measure giving the girl permanent residency in the United States.

Ms. Reagan's interest in politics dates back to when she was 11 and watched the first gavel-to-gavel television coverage of the national conventions in 1952. She became a committed Republican and soon was knocking on doors for Dwight Eisenhower. She sometimes noted that she was a Republican before her father, a Democrat until he switched affiliations.

She went on to become an officer of the Young Republicans and the Republican Women's Federation in California and led Republican women advocating passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She founded a political-action committee for Republican women candidates and became a prolific fund-raiser for them. She was co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee in 1987.

She became the third Reagan child to write a book about her famous father in 1989 with the publication of "First Father, First Daughter, a Memoir." She discussed the pain of her parents' divorce and her lonely childhood and portrayed serious flaws in father-daughter relations.

Confronting her father about why he hadn't told the young Patti about her, for instance, she reported this quizzical reply: "Well, we just haven't gotten that far yet." She, in turn, never told her father about the brutality of her first marriage, which she grippingly described in the book.

She endured other embarrassments when she ran for public office. Unlike her father, she supported abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment for women. During a 1982 GOP primary bid for the U.S. Senate in California, her uncle, Neil Reagan, supported her opponent. Her father, asked by a reporter if she was running, replied "I hope not" and did not endorse her publicly.

She made a second bid for office in 1992 when a new House seat opened in Southern California. She ran with her father's support, but was defeated in the primary by another GOP candidate.

Ms. Reagan was a U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, a trustee of Eureka College in Illinois — her father's alma mater — and was active with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

In addition to Revell and their 16-year-old daughter, she is survived by her father and stepmother; her mother; her brother Michael; half-sister Patti Davis; and half-brother Ronald Reagan Jr.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.