By Michael R. Blood
and John Rogers
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES - Chase Morsey never tired of his weekend routine with his friend Ronald Reagan - a Saturday lunch with fellow duffers at the Los Angeles Country Club, followed by nine holes of golf. Jokes were welcome, politics was not.
But in the early 1990s, Morsey and others in the loosely organized foursome began to notice a change in their most celebrated player.
Reagan, a storehouse of wit, "would start to tell us a joke, he would get halfway through it and just couldn't finish it," Morsey recalled.
The outings continued for a couple of years even after Reagan disclosed in 1994 that he was suffering from the disease that would eventually silence him. His doctors encouraged him to exercise, but on the golf course the former president gradually grew disoriented, even as he kept on smiling.
"We'd get the ball teed up for him, going to the green," Morsey said. But sometimes Reagan "didn't know which direction the hole was going."
"It was difficult playing with him, but I knew he enjoyed it," said Morsey, 84, a longtime corporate executive. "We all loved the guy so much, didn't mind it at all."
The Great Communicator spent the last decade of his life almost completely sheltered from the public, quietly waging a battle with Alzheimer's disease.
By the time he died Saturday at 93, Reagan had not been seen in public since the late 1990s. He hadn't recognized his children in years.
"My dad hasn't said my name in probably two years, but he knows me because I'm the guy who hugs him," the former president's elder son, Michael Reagan, said just before Christmas 1998.
'Sunset of my life'
Four years before that, Reagan had released a poignant, handwritten letter announcing that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and was embarking on "the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life."
"At the moment I feel just fine," the nation's 40th president, just six years out of office, said then. "I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this Earth doing the things I have always done."
For a short time, he did, arriving each weekday at his office in a 34th-floor Century City tower.
There, he posed for pictures with visiting VIPs and welcomed schoolchildren on his birthday and the holidays.
But as the disease began to take its toll, Reagan had to skip an 85th birthday celebration in 1996 at Chasen's, the West Los Angeles bistro where he sat in a red, upholstered booth and proposed to his wife, Nancy, more than 40 years before.
By the end of 1999, the former president had quit going to his office, although for a time neighbors would see him strolling through his Bel-Air neighborhood, occasionally stopping at a park to watch children play.
The last time Reagan White House adviser Ken Khachigian saw the former president was July 3, 1996, in Reagan's office. At the time Khachigian was running Bob Dole's presidential campaign in California and he stopped in with the candidate and his wife to see the Reagans, all old friends.
The former president, sipping a can of diet cola, looked remarkably fit and was dressed sharply in a suit and tie. But for virtually the entire sitdown, "he didn't communicate at all," Khachigian said.
Nancy Reagan "liked to have familiar faces around him, to the extent it might trigger some return of memory. But I feel clearly he did not know who the Doles were or who I was," said Khachigian, who also served Reagan as chief speechwriter.
"He just sat there," Khachigian said. "He didn't seem disoriented. It was tragic to see."
But Reagan, for just a moment, broke his silence as the group prepared to leave.
"As we ended the meeting and the Doles were chatting with Mrs. Reagan and I stood next to the president by his desk, he pointed to a picture of his mother, and he said, 'That's my mother,' Khachigian recalled. "I said, 'Well Mr. President, we're involved in this campaign now, and we're just going to win one more for the Gipper.'
"His eyes just brightened up and he said, 'All right.' There were remnants of memories, but that was pretty much it."
Out of public eye
By 2000, entertainer Merv Griffin, a longtime family friend, would report that he no longer saw the former president when he visited the Reagan home.
One of the last photos the family released of Reagan was taken on Feb. 6, 2000, his 89th birthday. It shows him and his wife at home, in matching red sweaters, sharing a kiss and cake, the former president still looking trim.
As late as the year before, his biographer Edmund Morris reported, Reagan was still strong enough to rake leaves from the family pool, but even that basic household chore had become tinged with sadness.
"He will rake leaves for hours, not realizing that they are being surreptitiously replenished by his Secret Service men," Morris wrote.
In a March 2001 interview with CNN's Larry King, Nancy Reagan said she no longer allowed visitors to see her husband - and even she could no longer reach him.
Former Secret Service agent John Barletta, who protected Reagan for 17 years in and out of the White House, in time becoming a family friend, said he first became concerned when Reagan began forgetting how to saddle his beloved El Alamein, a towering white stallion.
Then, Reagan's masterful technique in the saddle failed.
"He knew how to ride, he knew his equipment, but he was having trouble," Barletta said. Reagan would come up with a piece of equipment in his hand and ask, "What am I supposed to do with this?"
Barletta feared for Reagan's safety, and he had to tell the former president that their rides were over. The task left Barletta in tears. They never talked of horses again.
In time, Reagan's cherished Saturday trips to the golf course became a challenge, said Barletta, who would accompany him there.
"He would say, 'John, where are we going?' I would say, 'The Los Angeles Country Club.' He would say, 'What are we going to do there?' I would say, You're going to have lunch with some friends and play some golf, ' " Barletta recalled. "A minute later, he would ask me the same question."
When Barletta last saw Reagan several years ago, the former president said nothing and did not appear to recognize him.
On one of his final visits, the former agent recalled Reagan's childlike joy when a Labrador retriever he brought over at Nancy Reagan's request - a dog named Rawhide, Reagan's Secret Service code name - took a dunk in the pool, then shook the water off.
"It splashed all over the president, and he laughed and laughed," Barletta said. "That was the last time I saw him laugh."
Return to special section
Memories wiped away, bit by bit
Tributes abound on Fountain Square
Area folks feel drawn to Capitol to pay tribute
'Reagan Revolution' wasn't for all
Daughter, dad make trip to say goodbye to 'hero'
Notion: Name VOA park after Reagan