American Heroes

Two Young Americans Recall Life-Changing Moments With President Reagan

The year was 1986, and 21-year-old college student Richard Cavoli was about to be swept up in history. He designed an experiment that was going on the space shuttle.

That same year, 13-year-old Trevor Ferrell, from a prosperous suburban family, was making a name for himself by operating a homeless shelter in Philadelphia.

"I'm thinking, 'We have all this. Let's share some it,'" says Ferrell.

"'There's no reason for us to have to have all the pillows and all the blankets that we have. And here's somebody who has nothing.'"

Ferrell and Cavoli each got a phone call that would change their lives. They would become instant symbols of the kind of Americans that Ronald Reagan believed in. Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.

When Trevor's call came, he was playing in his back yard. "I remember my dad came running out of the house and said, 'Trevor! Trevor! It's the White House on the phone. The president wants to speak to you,'" recalls Ferrell. "And I said, 'Well, what does he want?'"

Cavoli, who's now a doctor in Albany, N.Y., was called to the phone in an airport that day. "I almost thought it was a prank initially," he recalls. "But the person on the other end said, 'This is the White House.' Thank goodness I didn't hang up or make some sort of off-color comment."

Within days, both Ferrell and Cavoli were at the White House, waiting to see President Reagan. He was going to honor them during the State of the Union address. It turned out to be an historic moment, but not for the reasons they had imagined.

"I was actually waiting in that office to see President Reagan and watching Challenger on TV, with my experiment aboard," says Cavoli. "And that's where I saw Challenger explode."

Incredibly, within hours of the explosion, President Reagan met Cavoli, Ferrell and other people he was going to honor.

"I was amazed that actually he did see us shortly thereafter," says Cavoli.

"He had tears in his eyes," adds Ferrell. "And you know, that made more of an impression on me than any of the awards or anything 'cause it showed me that he cared."

The State of the Union speech went on anyway, a few days late, and Mr. Reagan got his chance to introduce Cavoli and Ferrell to Congress, and an international audience.

"Just hearing the president mention your name made me feel really good," says Ferrell. "Those pats on the back show you that you are doing the right thing."

"The thing that affected me most was that someone like the president felt strongly enough about my work that he would use it as an example," says Cavoli. "An example to millions. And that is tremendously uplifting."

Ronald Reagan turned Ferrell and Cavoli into heroes of the day. It was part of a continuing campaign to show the country the kind of people who demonstrated Reagan's belief that individuals could be more effective than government.

"It was symbolism, but it was meaningful symbolism. And I think to a certain extent, we understood the power of that," says Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins.

He adds that the idea to honor ordinary Americans at the State of the Union began when Mr. Reagan saw the coverage of a plane crash not far from the White House.

"The first State of the Union we had this tragic accident in which the plane crashed into the bridge," recalls Rollins. "And he was just very taken by a very brave man who basically saw the plane go in the drink, and dove in and pulled one of the stewardesses."

That man was Lenny Skutnik, and his introduction started a tradition.

"And after that, we liked the idea of heroes. And we're sort of 'OK, who are we gonna put in the box this year?'" says Rollins. "And so, Reagan really made the world about good guys, ordinary people who could be heroes."

That's the kind of sentiment that was pure Ronald Reagan -- and of course, it wasn't bad politics, either. On camera, President Reagan honored Ferrell for his work helping the homeless, while off camera, his administration cut spending on social programs that would help the same people.

"It did bother me. And it still does to a certain degree," says Ferrell, who still works for the homeless, running a charitable thrift shop in Philadelphia. He didn't support the cuts in Social Services that President Reagan made.

"But I think he helped us become aware that we need to be involved in social organizations instead of just paying tax money and expecting that tax money to be used to help everybody and we go about our own business."

Mr. Reagan, however, won Ferrell over, like he won over millions of others who disagreed with his policies -- like he won the grudging admiration of his political rivals.

"There was a conversation, a dialogue that happened between Ronald Reagan and the American people. And whether you disagreed with him, and I did, on policies, he touched something that is common regardless of our differences, something that we all share," says Rahm Emmanuel, who helped run Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign.

"In the State of the Union that you can point to, heroes who had made a difference in their own lives that rippled around. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan's success as a communicator is because he lived the American dream."

And Democrats knew a good idea when they saw one. When Bill Clinton became president, he copied Mr. Reagan, and even started introducing people at the State of the Union.

Part of Ronald Reagan's legacy will be the ability to use ordinary people like Ferrell and Cavoli to amplify great themes.

But his impact is much more personal for those who stood up at the State of the Union, and will never be the same.

"It encouraged me to take on things that initially I may think impossible," says Cavoli. "I think it's hope. Hope is a tremendous force."