Partner With Us!
By Donna Johnson
(Born March 16, 1912 in Ely, Nevada — Died June 22, 1993 in Park Ridge, New Jersey)
People around the world knew her as Pat Nixon, wife of the 37th U.S. president. But she didn’t take Patricia as her name till she was 19 years old, when she enrolled at Fullerton Junior College in 1931. She thought the graceful-sounding name was a symbol of her new life as a college student.
Born Thelma Catherine Ryan near midnight on March 16, 1912, in a copper-mining camp in Ely, Nevada, she was almost immediately dubbed by her Irish Catholic father, Will Ryan, as his “St. Pat’s Babe.” And “Babe” she became to two older brothers, Bill and Tom, and most other relatives – although her mother, Kate, and many teachers called her Thelma, a name she hated. Her father’s nickname inspired her to choose “Patricia” upon her enrollment at the college – and she stuck with it for the rest of her life.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, daughters Tricia and Julie were shocked to read in newspapers that their mother’s name was Thelma, not Patricia, as they had always believed.
When “Babe” was still an infant, the Ryans moved to a 10.5-acre truck farm in Artesia, California, where she eventually attended a rural schoolhouse and most of her classmates called her “Buddy.”
Despite the many household and farm chores, she found time growing up for her favorite outdoors and “tomboy” games with her neighbors and best friends, Myrtle and Louise Raine, especially hanging out in a pear tree house built by the boys. The girls received critical stares from townspeople when they bought their own new, well-fitting boys’ blue jeans instead of wearing sloppy hand-me-downs from their brothers.
Will Ryan cultivated a peanut patch for the children so they could sit outside in the evenings and enjoy peanut roasts. Best of all was the treat of a warm weeknight swim, followed by wieners and marshmallows cooked over an open fire.
As Myrtle Raine Franz, now 96, remembers, the three girls often drove in the Raines’ Model T Ford over the dirt road to Seal Beach, since it had a bayside where they could bob safely in inner tubes.
“Babe” learned life-long lessons as a youngster about the value of earning a paycheck, and was known as a dependable, hard worker.
While still in her teens in the depths of the Depression, she began working in the little town of Artesia. At age 13, following her mother’s death of kidney disease, she prepared meals, sewed her own clothes and cared for the house and the family laundry – as well as working odd jobs and going to school. After her father died of tuberculosis when she was 16, she carried an even heavier load at home and at the bank in town, where she was the early morning janitor and handled bookkeeping assignments after school.
Yet she always made time for literature and poetry – loves instilled by her father – that helped with her studies. And beginning in junior high, she discovered a talent for dramatics and started taking part in school plays.
As an FJC student in 1931-32, theater remained an important part of Patricia’s life. She joined the Nightwalkers drama club and starred in a campus production of the Broadway hit “Broken Dishes” in 1932.
After a year at FJC, she drove across country and spent almost two years in New York with her father’s family. She often exchanged letters with her brothers, who were attending the University of Southern California, and they convinced her to come back to California and live with them. She enrolled at USC in 1934 on a scholarship to earn her teaching degree, making her spending money as a model and then expanding her theater involvement to assignments as an extra in films for her best wage of $6.50 a day.
Pat was chosen for a speaking part only once, in Hollywood’s first full-length color movie, “Becky Sharp,” in 1935. Unfortunately, her one line didn’t make the final cut. However, a few years later, acting led to her introduction, during a Whittier Community Players tryout in February 1938, to Richard Nixon, a new attorney with a firm in Whittier, where Patricia was teaching business classes at the high school.
She was cast as Daphne, the leading role in the mystery melodrama “The Dark Tower,” and Dick Nixon had the part of a collegiate youth who doesn’t get the girl. But, as she remembered years later, this “darling young bachelor” was determined. From the moment he saw her, Dick could not take his eyes away from the girl with “titian-colored” tresses, a phrase he and his relatives would use always to describe Pat’s red-gold hair.
According to “Pat Nixon: The Untold Story,” Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s 1986 biography of her mother’s life, Dick Nixon fell in love with Patricia Ryan on that first night of auditions. And he launched an ardent courtship, including love poems and notes over the coming months to “Miss Vagabond” or, later, “Dearest Heart.”
Dick’s youngest brother, Edward, recently recalled, “I met Pat in 1938; that was the first I knew of her. I was 8 years old…She won me over when she said, ‘Let’s go to the beach’. ” “Eddie,” now 81, wrote in his 2009 memoir, “The Nixons: A Family Portrait” that Pat would drive the young boy to Huntington Beach and race him to the sand.
Dick’s parents, Hannah and Frank Nixon, were also immediately taken with Pat, who responded warmly. She got up several days at 5 a.m. to help Hannah bake the 50 pies she made daily to sell in the family store on Whittier Boulevard.
And Dick continued to pursue Pat with special gifts and little surprises. Eddie once accompanied his brother on a stealthy visit to Pat’s apartment, leaving a Jack O’Lantern glowing in the window of her apartment on Halloween.
Pat had wanted a slower pace for their relationship, but found his attentions, enthusiasm and good humor irresistible. By August of 1939, Pat Ryan was falling in love.
In March 1940, Dick proposed while they sat in his car on a Dana Point bluff overlooking the Pacific, and she said “yes.” He was 27 and she, 28 when they were married at the Mission Inn in Riverside on June 21, 1940, with about 50 guests.
The couple had only 18 months together in Whittier before America was embroiled in the Second World War. In January 1942, Dick took a job in Washington, D.C., with the Office of Price Administration, and the Nixons had to scramble to find housing and a job for Pat.
After just two months with the OPA, Dick decided to apply for active duty as an officer in the Navy. The couple eventually traveled back across country to Dick’s departure point in San Francisco, where Pat remained throughout the war, working at the OPA offices. Lt. Nixon spent three years in the Pacific theater of war, receiving his orders in July 1945 to return to San Diego. Pat flew from San Francisco to meet him.
Following up on an idea he and Pat had discussed in 1941 about his future goals, Dick soon connected with a group of Republicans that was looking for a candidate to run for Congress from Whittier. In January 1946, they returned to Whittier to undertake a campaign – and prepare for the birth of their first child, a girl they named Patricia but who always has been known as “Tricia.”
In November, Richard Nixon became Whittier’s first citizen ever elected to Congress. The following 15 years were filled with a hectic Washington existence and almost nonstop campaigning for Pat and Dick Nixon, who also added a second daughter, Julie, to their family in July 1948.
Throughout her husband’s time as a congressman, senator and then vice president to President Dwight Eisenhower for eight years, Pat Nixon’s role was often vague. As an independent woman who had worked since she was 13, she was used to having responsibilities and so she struggled to fill her days with satisfying activities.
As Second Lady Patricia Nixon, she drove herself to one of the first luncheons at the White House – and left early to pick up her young daughters from school.
The pace picked up when President Eisenhower assigned his vice president to go on a goodwill trip to Asia and the Far East – and take his wife with him. The 10-week, 45,000-mile journey was a fulfillment of Patricia’s fantasy dreams of seeing the world. Her penchant for travel dated to her earliest memory, a Pacific Electric Red Car trolley ride to Los Angeles with her mother when she was about 2 years old.
During the March 2012 Pat Nixon centennial celebration in Yorba Linda, Julie Nixon Eisenhower recalled her mother’s cultural connections around the world as a Goodwill Ambassador: “Mother had so much love and concern and empathy for the people, the children. She would rather go to see a school or hospital than the heads of state.”
When Richard Nixon won the presidential election in 1968, Pat Nixon became the most traveled first lady in U.S. history, a record unsurpassed for 25 years. In all, she went to 78 countries, and her visit to Vietnam also marked the first time a first lady was in a combat zone.
Pat Nixon took a special trip of just 40 miles in May 1969, driving herself from the Western White House in San Clemente to her childhood neighborhood (now part of Cerritos) for the opening of Pat Nixon Park, on the site of the Ryan farm on South Street. The Raine sisters were in the crowd and heard their old friend, “Buddy” Ryan, deliver one of her rare public talks. The city placed a bronze life-size statue of the 5-foot-5 first lady on the grounds in 1997. A cluster of bright flowers often adorns the likeness’ neckline.
Throughout the turbulent years of the early 1970s – including Dick Nixon’s re-election, the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew and appointment of Gerald Ford as vice president – the first couple’s lives were overshadowed by the lengthy Watergate investigation and revelations. Pat Nixon maintained a belief that it was all a staged political battle, staunchly supported her husband and vowed to “carry on.”
As Tricia Nixon Cox recalled in March 2012 at the Nixon Presidential Library, her mother’s favorite saying in dealing with challenges was, “Onward and upward!”
But with the House of Representatives expected to set an impeachment vote, the President resigned in August 1974 and the Nixons flew to their home in San Clemente, California, in retirement. They lived in La Casa Pacifica, the estate they had purchased in 1969, and kept to themselves.
Pat spent her days gardening, reading and comforting her husband, who was dealing with depression that was not eased by President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in September. In October, he entered a hospital with a serious blood disorder. While he recuperated from surgery, Pat was at his bedside.
In May 1975, Patricia Nixon returned to Artesia, now called Cerritos, for the dedication of Patricia Nixon Elementary School. Childhood friend Myrtle Franz remembers she “got a big hug out of Pat.” “We used to see her every time she would come to the area for a tea or something,” Franz said, adding that Pat retained her small-town friendly nature and “always welcomed us with a smile and open arms.”
Richard Nixon’s health was improving, but Pat’s began to fail. In July 1976, she suffered a stroke, leaving her left side paralyzed but her speech unaffected. A quarter of a million pieces of mail were sent to the hospital wishing her well. Slowly she learned to walk again and worked hard to regain the use of her left arm.
In 1980, the Nixons decided to move back to the East Coast to spend more time with their four young grandchildren: Melanie, Jennifer and Alex Eisenhower and Christopher Cox. They lived in New York and then settled in New Jersey. Pat’s public appearances were rare, but she did advise Nancy Reagan by phone about the First Lady’s planned trip to China.
Pat Nixon’s health continued to decline. In 1983, she had a minor stroke followed by a lung infection, leading to years of being in and out of hospitals. On June 22, 1993, the day after the Nixons celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary, Patricia died of lung cancer. She was buried on the grounds of the Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda. Richard Nixon died of a stroke on April 22, 1994, and was laid to rest beside her.
In March 2012, the “People Were Her Project” exhibit marking Thelma Catherine “Patricia” Ryan Nixon’s 100th birthday opened at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and continues through the fall.
The world remembers and admires Pat Nixon’s determined, industrious youth on a farm in Artesia; her focus on education; love of theater and travel; dedication as Dick Nixon’s wife, the mother of Tricia and Julie and grandmother of four; and her accomplishments as an Ambassador of Goodwill.
In October 2013, Fullerton College Centennial Celebration will salute the achievements of Pat Nixon as an inaugural member of its Hall of Fame.