Artist and founder of the Fallen Heroes Project, Michael Reagan, shows the audience of Mount Si High School students his portrait of Vincent Santaniello, a friend he lost during the Vietnam War and one of the inspirations for the project. (Evan Pappas/Staff Photo)

Washington veteran and artist shares his story at Snoqualmie Valley schools’ Veterans Day assemblies

After fighting in the Vietnam War, Seattle-native Michael Reagan came home and found a passion in art. Now he uses his talents to give back to the families of soldiers who lost their lives while serving in the military by drawing portraits of them through his Fallen Heroes Project.

On Thursday, Nov. 10, Reagan spoke at Mount Si High School’s Veteran’s Day assembly, sharing his story with the students, staff and invited veterans.

“I was a combat Marine in Vietnam, but when we had down-time, I would draw a lot of the Marines who fell and send them home,” he said.

During the Vietnam War, Reagan’s friend Vincent Santaniello was killed. The memory of his friend is part of what motivates him to do this project.

“What he gave me that day that he died was the energy to do the work I’ve been doing for the last 13 years. Every day I look into the face of a fallen hero,” he said.

When he came home from the war in 1969, Reagan attended the Burnely School of Professional Art (now known as the Art Institute of Seattle) and began working in the Seattle School District, before moving on to working as the director of the Trademarks and Licensing program at the University of Washington.

In addition to his day job, Reagan worked as a artist doing celebrity portraits for more than 30 years. In doing these pieces, he would create a second portrait of the celebrity, for a charity.

”I was an artist for the stars the whole time while I was working at the UW and the school district,” he said. “What I would do when I was with someone like Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise or anybody like that, I would get them to autograph a second illustration board… I would redraw the portrait on them and I would donate those to charity.”

In 2004, KING 5 TV’s “Evening Magazine” did a story on his celebrity artwork and charitable donations. From that exposure, Reagan got a call from Charisse Johnson, a woman who saw the program rebroadcast on NBC in Boise, Idaho. She asked Reagan if he could do a portrait of her husband, a Corpsman who died in Iraq in 2003.

“(She said) ‘I just saw NBC news, they showed a picture of your portraits and I loved them. How much would you charge me to draw a portrait of my husband,’” Reagan explained. “She said he was a Corpsman in Iraq and he died in 2003. His name was Michael Johnson. I told her I’m a Marine Vietnam combat veteran, Corpsmen are the bravest people I know and I couldn’t possibly charge her, so she sent me the photograph of her husband Michael and I did the portrait. I sent it back to her right away. not having any idea where this was about to take me.”

When Johnson received the portrait in the mail, she called Reagan to thank him for his work. It was that call that convinced him to continue drawing fallen veterans full time. Johnson told him she hadn’t been able to sleep a full night in over a year. Once she saw the portrait and was able to reconnect with her husband, she slept soundly for the first time.

Reagan, recognizing that this was an important path that he needed to pursue, retired from his job at the University of Washington in order to start working on portraits of fallen veterans full-time. He called it the Fallen Heroes Project.

Tom Burford, eighth grade U.S. History teacher at Chief Kanim Middle School, met Reagan 10 years ago at an FBI Citizen’s Academy and was impressed by the work he had done.

In 2012, Burford, who then worked at Snoqualmie Middle School, was working on organizing the Veterans Day assembly and showed a video of Reagan to the students helping him.

Burford said the students wanted to hold a fundraiser for Reagan that year and ended up raising $2,700 to donate to him.

Since then, students in the Snoqualmie Valley School District have been raising money to support Reagan’s Fallen Heroes project every year.

“We raised $2,700 that year, we’ve just been doing it since then,” Burford said. “We are up to $12,000 in four years.”

Reagan was introduced at the Mount Si High School Assembly by one of the students, now a senior, who originally began fundraising for Reagan while she was at Snoqualmie Middle School.

Reagan, who draws between 400 and 500 portraits, a year said he has found his calling and the support he receives from the community fundraisers helps him to continue the work he does for families of fallen veterans.

“I’m going to do the work for free, that’s going to happen no matter what. My wife and I pay the bills and everyone who helps, helps us pay the bills,” he said. “Their generosity has helped me an incredible amount.”

Reagan also spoke at Twin Falls Middle School and Chief Kanim Middle school the same day.

For more information on Michael Reagan and the Fallen Heroes Project, visit www.fallenheroesproject.org.

Michael Reagan shared the story of how the Fallen Heroes Project began and how donations from the Snoqualmie Valley School District help fund the project. (Evan Pappas/Staff Photo)

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