EDMONDS, Wash --
It’s about two in the morning on the West Coast. While many people are just going to bed or have been asleep for a few hours now, one man, with coffee on the pot and the sounds of the ‘60s echoing in the background of his den, is setting up his drawing board and pencils preparing to start the day’s work. He knows he has a lot to accomplish today.
His job is one that not too many people have the heart or the skill to do. The work he does is non-profit in the monetary sense. Instead, the reward for his efforts is a phone call or a letter from a person whose loved one made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country, thanking him for giving them a lasting memory of their brave hero.
Three and a half years ago, veteran Marine Cpl. Michael Reagan, 60, from Seattle, dedicated his life to draw portraits free of charge for any family of a fallen service member.
Reagan has produced more than 800 portraits of these heroes and continues to touch more lives than he ever thought possible and could ever comprehend.
“This is something that I have to do,” Reagan explained. “I have to do it. These portraits are doing something incredible when they get back to their families and that’s wonderful.”
Reagan, who is no stranger to combat himself, joined the Marine Corps in 1966 and deployed to Vietnam with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, in 1967. He spent the majority of his time close to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the area near Con Thien.
During his tour there, he spent a lot of his downtime drawing portraits of some of the other Marines deployed in the fight with him.
“(Drawing) is something I’ve always enjoyed doing,” he said. “In school I was always the guy who got in trouble for drawing on the desks.”
Reagan’s skill became an asset to his unit as he was able to draw out maps of areas they patrolled on the ever-changing battlefield. Unfortunately, like many service members who served in Vietnam, Reagan continuously engaged the enemy and witnessed fellow service members die next to him. After his return home from the war in April 1968, he did not really understand why he was spared or what his purpose was in life.
“When I came home from Vietnam I believed I was okay; I had no Purple Hearts or scars and I was in the DMZ when a lot of the bad stuff was going on,” he explained. “I had no idea why I made it through when the guys to the left and right of me were dying.”
He said it wasn’t for another 35 years, that he would finally discover that purpose.
After honorably serving his country, Reagan got out of the Marine Corps in 1969. He attended the Burnley School of Professional Art in Seattle a year later and graduated with a degree in commercial art in 1972. Shortly after, he got a job with the Seattle School District doing software programming and graphics. Then in 1979, he got a job as the director of trademarks and licensing at the University of Washington, where he worked for the next 27 years.
He continued to draw portraits throughout his career and became a well-respected and successful artist.
“I was voted the most commercial artist in my class,” he explained. “I knew how to make money out of rocks, so to speak. I was always working two jobs trying to make a living as an artist.”
Reagan has drawn more than 1,600 portraits of celebrities and notable personalities including Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine and Audrey Hepburn and Harrison Ford. He has drawn every Heisman Trophy winner and a majority of the National Football League’s Hall of Fame members. Almost every portrait is signed by the celebrity and Reagan would have them sign multiple drawing boards so he could sell more. A lot of his profits went to charity organizations. He has raised over 10 million dollars for charities across the country.
He has also drawn portraits of six U.S. presidents, including President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. Reagan personally presented the original portraits to them in 2002, and they currently hang in the White House.
Reagan knew how to market his work and made a lot of money doing it. He owned a few of his own art studios throughout the Edmonds community. His life was, as he thought at the time, going in the direction he wanted it to- to be “the” great artist.
But it was an unexpected meeting with a service member’s widow a year and a half later that would change Reagan’s life forever.
Cherise Johnson, a resident of Boise, Idaho, and wife of Michael Johnson, a soldier who died during the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, heard about Reagan’s work in an NBC broadcast of the story of Reagan’s work with charities. She found his email address through his website and asked him one simple question.
“She asked me ‘how much would it cost for you to do a portrait of my husband?’” Reagan explained. “I told her that I would do it for free.”
Reagan had found his purpose. Before he knew it, more requests started to come his way.
“I decided that I had to do them all,” he said.
As the war continued and word of Reagan’s project spread, the requests from families asking for portraits multiplied.
In June 2005, Reagan decided it was time to devote himself to these portraits full-time and retired from his job with the University of Washington.
“There was no way I could do what I was doing and still have time to keep working,” he explained. “This is my duty now.”
On average, Reagan completes two portraits per day. Each drawing can take up to five hours to finish.
The veteran doesn’t just draw a portrait of the service members, he learns about their lives and who they were.
“Their families will send me videos and pictures and tell me stories, and I take this all in before I draw their picture,” he said.
As one can imagine, a task like Reagan’s can be emotionally draining. So Reagan takes regular walks around his quaint, evergreen-covered neighborhood. The walks help him relax and deal with the raw emotions he endures on a daily basis.
From the time he receives a request until the time he finishes a portrait, Reagan feels the service member’s presence with him.
“I’m not a real religious person, but I can feel their energy as soon as I start on their portrait until I put it in the mail to be sent to the family,” he said. “When I send a portrait to a family, that person’s energy goes with it, and when the family opens that package, it’s there with them.”
Reagan makes himself available to every family member he speaks with and stays in contact with them even after they receive their portrait.
On May 11, 2007, Marsha Mattek, the mother of Lance Cpl. John Mattek Jr., a 24-year-old Marine with the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, who died in Iraq after wounds received on June 8, 2005 in the Al Anbar Province, sent Reagan a letter after receiving the portrait of her son.
“I just received the portrait of our son, Johnny,” she wrote. “There truly are no words to express to you the beauty of this portrait. You brought out the magic that Johnny held so well in his smile. Instead of tears, when I opened the portrait your beautiful work brought a smile to my face and warmth to my heart, as you truly captured what our son loved doing and that was serving his country.”
Reagan said he has received letters similar to Marsha’s from almost every family whose loved ones’ portrait he has done.
“When somebody says to me ‘thanks for bringing my son home’ or ‘thanks for bringing my husband home,’ I know that something special is happening,” he said.
He recalled a recent conversation with a mother of a fallen hero.
“I just had a family whose son’s coffin came home screwed shut,” he explained, becoming slightly choked up. “I know what that means. I know what she is talking about. So the portrait is going to be the next time she sees her son. It allows them to believe a piece of them is still here.”
“What Mike does starts the healing process for a lot of these families,” continued his wife, Cheryl, with tears in her eyes. “His portraits give them a place to focus and begin healing.”
Reagan credits the beginning years of his art as the stepping stone that needed to be crossed to give him the ability and skill required for this tremendous task.
“All of that happened so I could do this project,” he said. “There has never been anything in my life more rewarding than this. I would do it all over again.”
The unbelievable amount of love that goes into each portrait is evident by Reagan’s unending commitment to the families and to their loved ones.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran Marine doing portraits with every bit of love and respect I have inside of me,” he explained. “I will do this as long as I may have to, as long as families keep asking for them.”
Throughout his 35 years of drawing, Reagan said the last three and a half have given him back the ability to feel and has changed his outlook on life.
In Vietnam, he served his country when it called upon him. Now he is answering his calling by giving back to those who have suffered and sacrificed so much.
So every morning, for as long as it takes and as long as he can, Reagan’s pot of coffee will be brewing. He will sharpen his pencils and set up his illustration boards, preparing to emotionally engage another hero’s story and their presence. And as long as he has a breath in his body, the faces of the men and women that give America freedom will never be forgotten.
*For questions or comments on this story please contact Cpl. Lucian Friel at Lucian.Friel@usmc.mil or for more information on the Fallen Hero Portrait Project visitwww.fallenheroesproject.org.