DECATUR — We don’t know whether the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 as the nation’s first African-American president signaled a change in the country’s direction toward “greater government activism.”

But we should in less than two weeks with the outcome of this year’s presidential election.

So says Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan scholar who spoke at a Decatur Club luncheon Thursday and identified the following former presidents, in addition to Reagan, as pivotal to U.S. history — Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“There is a didactic to American presidential politics,” Shirley said. “Every generation or two, we go through a trench of mediocre presidents before getting a revolutionary figure.”

Shirley, author of “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All” and “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” came to Decatur to speak and sign books under the sponsorship of Foster Financial Services Inc., Soy Capital Bank, J.L. Hubbard Insurance & Bonds, WSOY Radio and the Ronald Reagan Society of Eureka College.

Thursday’s luncheon, attended by more than 60 people, also had at least two “small world” moments.

First, it came out that Shirley’s mother — Barbara Cone Shirley Eckert of Rochester — graduated from Decatur High School in 1951 and so did audience member Karl Meurlot, a Decatur attorney. Both are 79.

“We had a good basketball team that year,” Meurlot remarked, “and I was on the floor.”

“She was cheering for you,” Shirley said. “She was one of the ‘Red Peppers’ that did the cheers.”

Second, John Morris, director of the Ronald Reagan Society at Eureka, singled out audience member Bryce Swanson, who works at the Decatur Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Swanson, 23, is a 2007 graduate of Maroa-Forsyth High School, a 2011 graduate of Eureka College and was president of the student body there, just as Reagan was.

Morris also stressed that Reagan is the only U.S. president born, raised and educated in Illinois.

“Being from the populist Midwest had a very direct impact on Reagan’s world view,” Shirley said. “By 1980, he is a fully formed conservative who embraces optimistic conservatism and its practicality as a government philosophy.”

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