The phone rang at 3 in the morning. Michael Reagan answered it, and met a mom in Scotland.
She had learned about Reagan’s work, and needed him to create something for her. Something unique, and something he’s done more than a thousand times.
Reagan is the Edmonds, Wash., artist behind the Fallen Heroes Project. For nine years, he has made portraits of soldiers who died serving their country, and sends them to families, free of charge. To date, he’s sent mailed or delivered nearly 3,200 pictures of soldiers in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
For that Scottish mom, and for other families, “I was the first phone call,” he said. “It means these are important.”
Through Reagan’s work, families can look into their loved ones’ eyes again.
For nine years, through thousands of portraits, Reagan has been the giver, helping fallen heroes come home.
No one has ever done anything like this for him before, Reagan says. Not like how the student body at Snoqualmie Middle School came together to give the artist’s Fallen Heroes Project a $1,652 boost.
Tom Burford, a social studies teacher at Snoqualmie Middle School, helped start the drive with a group of students.
In the wake of Veteran’s Day, last November, Burford and his charges set a goal of collecting $700, good for two months worth of art supplies for Reagan.
“We blew through that pretty quick,” Burford said, collecting more than $1,650.
Burford met Reagan at an FBI Citizen Academy meeting last year, and was impressed by the artist’s passion to remember the nation’s servicepeople.
Burford showed a video of Reagan’s work to his Veteran’s Day committee students, and they decided to help Reagan. The same video (viewable at www.fallenheroesproject.org) struck a chord when it was shown at the school’s Veteran’s Day assembly.
“There was no hesitation,” Burford said. “They just grabbed hold of it. They got it. They understand what it must be like to have lost someone.”
The students recognize sacrifices made by the military, including their lives. They learn about it in history classes, Burford said.
During the coin drive, the biggest donations came from the sixth grade class, but every class stepped up. One student completely emptied his personal bank of about $230.
“I had no idea where this would go,” Burford said. “We were all impressed. Everyone involved was touched.”
Gift of love
In the graphite portraits, the faces look out at the viewer. Many are in uniform, most are men, but “there’s a lot of women,” Reagan says.
He does them one at a time, two a day, mailing them out every Tuesday
“I draw the work as if it’s the only one I’m doing.”
Reagan has had a widely varied career. A retired director of trademarks and licensing for the University of Washington, he was the team artist for the Huskies for 31 years.
Forty years ago, fresh out of Vietnam, Reagan finished art school and wound up working for a Seattle venue called the Cirque Playhouse.
He drew portraits of the artists and guests, and enjoyed the good life, with seats for dinner theater.
“I was spending time with all the celebrities coming into town,” Reagan said.
When the Cirque closed in 1981, Reagan had an idea.
“If I’m going to be with Harrison Ford, doing his portrait, and if I can get his autograph for four blank boards, I can draw the portraits and donate them to charity.”
That project snowballed, and soon Reagan was doing autographed portraits of superstars of every stripe, from actors and musicians to presidents and the Pope, raising more than $10 million.
A televised news spot on his work sparked the Fallen Heroes Project. A Boise woman learned about his portraits and asked for one of her husband, a medical corpman who had died in Iraq the year before.
“I told her I was a Marine Vietnam combat veteran, and corpsmen were the bravest people I knew, and I would do it for free.”
When she received the portrait, she called Reagan, and they talked.
“She… told me that in a year she hadn’t slept a full night through,” he said. Receiving the portrait, “when she pulled it out of the envelope and looked into his eyes, she connected with him again. She said she was able to finish some of the conversations left undone with his death, she was able to tell him she loved him, and felt him say he loved her. Then she told me thank you because last night was the first night in a year she had slept all night.”
Reagan has made some real connections with families. He doesn’t want this country to forget that there is a war on, and people are dying.
“All the Gold Star families are incredible,” he said. Most are in great pain and yet allowing him to step in and try to help.
“They are trusting me to not hurt them more then they already hurt,” he says. “I had a mom ask me one time why I wanted to share in their grief. I said I didn’t feel like I was doing that. I felt like I was sharing in their love.
“A Gold Star dad called me one night, a year after I did his son’s portrait,” Reagan said. The man asked him why he does it. “He asked me that question, but he had the answer and wanted to be sure I knew. He told me this work was allowing my soul to come home from Vietnam. He was right.”
Reagan uses color on rare occasions. When a solider, who later died in the line of duty, wrapped his baby daughter in a flag for a family photo, or when a boy is being carried from his father’s funeral, “how could I not do the flag in color?”
For Reagan, this work is personal. The 65-year-old has never taught an apprentice to take it over because “they won’t be me. When I’m gone, it ends.”
For him, the Fallen Heroes Project will stop, “the day before someone needs to draw my portrait.”
Reagan got to meet SMS students at an assembly on Friday, Jan. 18.
The six eighth grade girls who Burford chose to be on the Veteran’s Day committee watched Reagan’s reaction to a check for an amount three times bigger than he expected.
“We’re all very proud of our school,” said Ally Urbasich, one of the committee members.
“A small thing can make a huge difference,” added committee member Mady Privatsky. “It showed how much we can do together.”
On the final day, to boost the total, Burford challenged every student to bring in a dollar.
“I know almost everyone brought a dollar that day,” said Privatsky. “The whole school contributed.”
“We’re not going to have a school next year,” said eighth grader Claire Lis. “But this, knowing that we did it, is still going to be here. The thing he brought,” a special artwork for the school, “that’s going to go with Mr. Burford wherever he goes.”
“It’s a way of carrying on our legacy,” added Sarah Bosworth.
For every $11 of the donation, Reagan can send a portrait home. He’s touched by the generosity.
This donation “helps me get a part of something lost, home to their families,” he says. “This isn’t for me, we work for free, its for them. I tell them to be proud that they care enough to do what they did to help.”
“This sort of thing happens rarely,” Reagan said. “I’ll never forget.”
Learn more about the Fallen Heroes Project at www.fallenheroesproject.org.
Fallen Heroes Project artist Michael Reagan with some of the over 2000 portraits of fallen soldiers he has drawn in his Edmonds, Wash. studio on Tuesday July 27, 2010.
(photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Picture