The Marine Vet Who Draws Presidents, Fallen Heroes—and Parkland’s Kids
Presidents and celebrities have thanked Michael Reagan for his lifelike works of art. Now he’s gifting 17 portraits to the families of Parkland’s young victims.
PARKLAND, Florida—Marti Glaser stands silent and anxious outside Peter Wang’s house with a gift from a stranger.
Her mood is a stark contrast from the genetic makeup of Parkland. The swaying palm trees, Mediterranean-style homes and the cool spring breeze provides a superficial, proverbial cloak for the bereavement within the city and behind the front door of Wang’s home.
This is meet-up No. 4 of 17 and she doesn’t know how the parents will react. What do you say to a parent after their child’s murder? She wonders.
When she met with Andrew Pollack, he was grateful, but angry—pissed off that he will not get to see his 18-year-old daughter Meadow Pollack again. He wanted President Donald Trump and the nation watching to know that back in February.
With a sigh of sadness, Fred Guttenberg said, “Oh, I really miss that face,” as he looked down at his daughter, 14-year-old Jamie Guttenberg.
Twelve days after the shooting on Feb 14, Glaser delivered the first gift to Manuel Oliver, the father of 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver.
When Glaser met with Manuel, he looked at the gift, looked back up at her, and then back at the gift and started talking to the almost life-like, hand-drawn portrait of his son.
Jesse Pan, a friend of the Wang family, came outside to invite Glaser in. He will act as translator for her.
Multiple pairs of empty shoes sit by the doorway as she walks in and gives her condolences to Hui Wang, Peter’s mother. Smiling pictures of family and friends hang on the wall.
A picture frame of Marjory Stoneman Douglas U.S. Army JROTC cadets overlooks the dining room table where white Peace Lilies run the length of the table.
In the corner, by the television, is a poster board that says, “Peter”—the poster is from Wang’s funeral, and it’s filled to the edges with messages of sympathy, encouragement and love.
Peter’s dream was to go to West Point, but before he could be a soldier he laid down his life as a hero in a final act of heroism, by holding the door so his classmates could escape to safety as a former student fired round after round throughout the hallways of Stoneman Douglas.
“I’m here on behalf of Michael Reagan,” said Glaser. “He does portraits of our fallen heroes and he did this portrait of your son,”she said, carefully tearing off the tape on the cardboard containing the portrait of a cadet accepted posthumously to West Point, Class of 2025.
Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. Audrey Hepburn and Susan Sarandon. Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. Even “Ol Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra and “Joltin” Joe DiMaggio—the rolodex of names goes on and on.
From U.S. presidents and Heisman Trophy winners to sports legends and Oscar winners, the world-renowned and internationally sought-after artist Michael G. Reagan has drawn most of them over the past three decades, more than 10,000 portraits and counting.
President Ronald Reagan wrote him a letter of gratitude for his portrait in June 1980. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did too, in October 1983.
Bob Hope in 1981—Oprah Winfrey in 1997—President George W. Bush told Michael Reagan that he had “caught the sparkle in First Lady Laura Bush’s eyes,” so Bush had the portrait of her mounted in the Oval Office, so he could see that sparkle on a daily basis.
Over the decades, Reagan developed the idea of drawing two portraits of a celebrity, giving them one to keep and asking for an autograph on the other, so that he could donate their portrait with signature in hopes of raising money for charity—the idea worked.
Millions of dollars were raised—more than $10 million for the Children's Hospital in Seattle and other charities involved in cancer research.
Nine years ago, Reagan was no one I had ever heard about as I walked into a memorial service at Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina just a few weeks after returning from Afghanistan. At the time, 13 of my fellow Marines had been killed in combat—four days later, another was gone as Marine Cpl. Xhacob LaTorre succumbed to wounds he suffered on deployment.
The main theme song from HBO’s Band of Brothers reverberated through the speakers of the base theater. A widow’s crying screams would echo throughout the building, interrupting silent reflection.
Much like the days following the shooting in Parkland, morale was low and melancholy was prevalent across the battalion as we stood among newly minted Gold Star families. I still remember the tears streaming down my face while standing at the position of attention as the names of my fellow Marines were called out one by one—such as it was in Parkland the day after the shooting at a candlelight vigil.
In 2009, Reagan, the unknown artist to me, had created hand-drawn portraits of the dead that lined the stage, accompanied by the traditional battlefield cross of combat boots, a rifle, a kevlar, and their dog tags. The faces within the frames stared back at us.
Over the years, I saw more and more of these portraits of service members and friends, never once thinking to stop to search for the artist’s signature. Like Bush, I got lost in the memories as I stared into their eyes.
As I got further away from Afghanistan deployments and my own military service, I didn’t see the portraits as much—I didn’t recognize the faces anymore—until earlier this month.
A day before the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas to be exact, I would learn that these same portraits had been hand drawn for the 17 families of Parkland by the same artist that created the portraits of my fellow Marines. Ironically, he was a former Marine infantry veteran, like me.
Reagan wanted to keep the portraits he made for the families of Parkland low-key and was reluctant to receive media attention because he doesn’t want people thinking that he does this for fame, financial gain, or even to push one political agenda over another.
“That’s the thing that always scares me the most,” Reagan told The Daily Beast by phone as he walked his daily five-and-a-half mile hike through the backwoods of Seattle, where he lives and works.
“You know, those 14 Marines I drew of yours, imagine if I messed up somewhere along the line and I wasn’t allowed to do them anymore... I know these portraits mean a lot to the families.”
“It’s not about politics or a position on guns, and it certainly isn’t about me wanting to get attention, it’s about me wanting these families to understand that I miss their kids too and it matters to me,” Reagan said. “I can’t fix the problem, but I can make sure they are never forgotten.”
In March 2003, U.S. Navy Corpsman Michael Vann Johnson Jr. was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade that entered his Humvee and exploded. Johnson was giving medical aid to a fellow wounded soldier at the time.
A year later in 2004, Johnson’s widow, Charisse Johnson, was watching a NBC segment on Reagan’s portraits and his contributions to charity. The story resonated with her, so she called Reagan to ask how much he charges for portraits—the Gold Star widow wanted one of her husband. Reagan refused payment.
Charisse told People that after she received the portrait of her husband, “she called Reagan and told him it was the first time she slept all night in a year.”
Reagan was deeply moved by the impact it had on her. He told his wife, “We need to do them all.”
To date, Reagan has drawn more than 5,300 portraits of fallen U.S. service members, including those in foreign armies that served alongside American forces.
For him, the real “celebrities” never scored a touchdown during a NFL Super Bowl or held an Academy Award. They are names like Sharp and Sietsema—Moyer and Ouellette—they are the children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where teachers died attempting to save the lives of their students.
“At Sandy Hook, I talked to every one of those families about their kids,” Reagan said. “I heard stories that the press will never get their hands on ever. They are so personal.”
“These portraits have only one purpose and that’s to give those families something that might help them feel a little better. You have to give this to the people... the ones who loved those young people. It lets them know that there is still some hope and love in this country,” he said.
Professional family photos hang on the wall just inside the front entrance of Ryan and Kelly Petty’s home in Parkland.
The oldest son, Ian, is away at college in Idaho. Meghan, a Stoneman Douglas graduate, is set to attend Florida International University in Miami to study international relations. Patrick, a Stoneman Douglas JROTC cadet, is a junior and has already started working on his application to apply for either West Point or the Naval Academy—he wants to be pilot.
The youngest member of the Petty family, 14-year-old Alaina, can be found almost everywhere in photographs and momentos.
One family portrait, taken in Parkland, is the “goofy picture.”
“We have another one we did in Seattle by a porta potty,” Kelly said. “So we were like, ‘well what can we do that’s funny?’ and the funniest thing was an electric box.”
The adjacent table shows photographs of Alaina from different ages and memories within random picture frames of varying sizes. A landscape photo shows her 8th-grade class posing in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. in 2017; another shows her competing in a JROTC field meet with her friends.
“You have such a beautiful family and I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Glaser, who is a graduate of Stoneman Douglas and a former broadcast journalist. “Reagan wanted to make sure you knew this was coming from the heart,” Glaser told the family as she unwraps portrait number five of 17.
Kelly told The Daily Beast that she has gone to the cemetery a few times and kids have been leaving behind small gestures of condolences, usually their JROTC rank or military challenge coin. Someone left a Legion of Merit ribbon, which is given to members of the armed forces for exceptional meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.
Meghan shows off a medal a veteran gave the family at Alaina’s funeral—the blue box with gold design holds a Army Commendation Medal inside, which is awarded to U.S. soldiers who display heroism, meritorious achievement, or service.
Alaina was cadet of the quarter for JROTC at Stoneman Douglas and was instructing her fellow platoon members, that included Cadet Pfc. Peter Wang, in how to lead a military formation as a cadet corporal on Feb. 14.
Another classmate, a 14-year-old freshman named Rhianna, said Petty was helping them prepare for the cadet corporals exam—both Wang and Rhianna passed.
“Alaina was always smiling, she was always happy and telling jokes...I never once saw her upset...she was professional when she needed to be,” Rhianna told The Daily Beast.
On a black piano, sits a military shadow box.
Inside is a photograph of Alaina in her JROTC uniform, her cadet ranks and a folded American flag.
Reagan has a simple saying that he recites as another portrait leaves his studio in Seattle, and travels across the country to another family. The saying usually is the person’s name and then the phrase, “is going home today.”
On Facebook, Reagan wrote on March 3, “Peter Wang, Alaina Petty and Gina Montalto go home. Please say a prayer for their families. Never Forget!”
The next day, he wrote, “Tomorrow Jamie Guttenberg goes home. Please say a prayer for her family. Never Forget!”
The phrase is somewhat plagiarized and is the main reason this 70-year-old man walks five-and-a-half miles every day through the woods.
“Why do you think I do that? It’s the emotions,” Reagan said. “I just finished another portrait today and whole bunch of them are arriving around the country. The emotions from this are terrible, so I just do what I have to do. I walk...and I think about Vince and Peter.”
Fifty years ago next week on March 28, Reagan, a Marine corporal, was assigned to a 25-man platoon in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, a infantry unit out of Twentynine Palms, California.
On that day, Reagan was at Cam Lộ Regional Headquarters in Vietnam, some four miles south of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone, where they were previously positioned.
The Marines were 13 days away from rotating back to the U.S. when all hell broke loose as rockets and mortars rained down on their position.
Like Parkland, Reagan says they didn’t expect to get hit. “We thought we were secure.”
His friends, Peter Armstrong, with whom Reagan went to high school, and Vincent “Vinnie” Santaniello from Queens, N.Y., died that day.
Reagan maneuvered with two Navy Corpsman to get to Santaniello, who was still alive when Reagan reached the young Marine and company driver that delivered the mail.
“I took him in my arms so he wouldn’t be alone,” Reagan said. The shrapnel from the mortar rounds and rockets exploding had severely wounded the lower half of Santaniello body, but the medics continued to work on him.
“He looked up at me, right in the face, and said, ‘Mike, I just want to go home’ and he closed his eyes and died,” Reagan said. “It’s the face I have seen everyday for 50 years.”
“It’s important to remember all the stuff that’s hard to remember, it’s a good thing because then, those people are never forgotten.”
On Facebook, Reagan wrote that he thinks the one true way to help end these types of tragedies is for people—communities—to start caring about their neighbors more before another Parkland or Sandy Hook occurs.
“I do believe, as long as we remember who these wonderful people were and what happened to take them, it might one day stop someone from doing this.”
There are more portraits to be delivered in the coming days and weeks— 15-year-old Luke Hoyer and 14-year-old Gina Montalto will be six and seven of 17 as Reagan continues to honor his fellow Marine, Santaniello, and bring a small portion of these young lives back home.