Pat Nixon, the wife of Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, was extremely active in her husband's political life, both as vice president and as president, traveling with him and taking up the cause of volunteerism. Although she received far less publicity for her efforts, Pat received many donations of valuable furniture and artwork for the White House—more than Jacqueline Kennedy would receive several years later.
United States first lady and wife of (the 37th U.S.) President Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon was born Thelma Catherine Ryan on March 16, 1912, in the small mining town of Ely, Nevada. Her nickname, Pat, was given to her by her father, William, who claimed Irish roots and wanted to celebrate his daughter's birth on the eve of St. Patrick's Day.
Her origins were humble. After her mother, Kate, convinced William to leave his life as a miner, the family settled in Artesia, California, where the Ryans started a truck farm.
When Pat was 12, her mother died of cancer. As her mother neared the end, it was Pat who not managed the house, but served as her mom's caregiver. "For the last two or three months I used to sit with her through the night," she later recalled. "We couldn't afford a night nurse and she needed attention."
Five years later, her father, whom she was extremely close to, died of the miner's condition, silicosis. As his illness worsened, Pat had taken on the household and farm chores. She also worked as a morning janitor at a local bank to help the family pay its bills for her and four siblings.
In 1932, an 18-year-old Pat Nixon received an opportunity to drive an elderly couple across country in their Packard. In the east, Pat found work at Seton Hospital for the Tubercular, which was run by the Catholic Sisters of Charity. Pat lived with the sisters and saved money for college.
Pat returned to California in 1934 and enrolled at the University of Southern California, where she majored in merchandising. She graduated, cum laude, in 1937.
After failing to find work with a department store, Pat took a job teaching shorthand and typing at a secondary school in Whittier, California. In her off-time Pat showed an interest in acting and during an audition for a play in 1937 she met Richard Nixon, a recent Duke Law School graduate who had his own practice in Whittier.
The young lawyer was immediately smitten with Pat, even going so far as to drive her to dates with other men. For two years he dated her before she finally agreed to marry him.
Family Life and Early Politics
The Nixons married on June 21, 1940 in Riverside, California. With the onset of World War II, the young couple moved to Washington D.C., where Richard Nixon worked as an attorney in the Office of Emergency Management, and Pat took a job at the Red Cross. After her husband volunteered for the U.S. Navy and was stationed in the South Pacific, Pat moved to San Francisco, where she worked as an economist for the Office of Price Administration.
Nixon had long had an interesting politics and in 1946 won a seat in the U.S. Congress as a representative for California. Just four years, later he became a U.S. senator, and in 1952 was elected vice president of the United States, serving under Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Pat proved to be a crucial part of her husband's political success. She had an eye for politics and for making people feel welcome. She was also a hard worker. On February 21, 1946 she gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter, Patricia. Within hours after the birth, she was on the campaign trail, working for her husband.
On July 5, 1948, the Nixons had a second daughter, Julie.
The Nixon Administration
In January 1969 Richard Nixon was inaugurated President of the United States. In many ways, Pat transformed the role of the first lady. She became entrenched in several social issues from education to volunteerism.
She also traveled extensively, covering more than 100,000 miles as first lady. In 1972 she headed a United Nations delegation abroad to see the inauguration of President William R. Tolbert of Liberia. Her travels also took her to Peru, where she visited parts of the country that had been devastated by an earthquake, and she became the first first lady to visit a combat zone when she visited South Vietnam.
Back home, she worked to make the White House more accessible. She opened the property up to evening tours, and garden and grounds tours. Pat also pushed to create brochures about the White House made in languages other than English. Her passion for art led to the purchase of more than 600 paintings and pieces of furniture for the White House, the largest acquisition ever for a presidential administration.
She also served as a member of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, and took on the role of honorary chair of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's "Right to Lead" program.
But the Nixon White House was undone by the Watergate scandal. At every moment, Pat, who had not been briefed early on about the details surrounding Watergate showed support of her husband. "I only know what I read in the papers," she'd say to inquiring reporters.
As the scandal closed in around her husband, Pat urged the president to stay on and fight the articles of impeachment. On August 8, 1974, Nixon announced his intention to resign the office of the presidency. Later that night, her last in the White House, a stoic Pat told her husband: "We're all proud of you, Daddy."
Following the president's resignation, the Nixons moved to San Clemente, California. The next few years proved to be difficult for Pat: Her husband wrestled with legal issues related to his resignation as well as poor physical health, including bouts of depression.
Pat, too, suffered from her own physical issues: In 1976, she experienced a stroke that temporarily took away her speech and the use of her left side. A second stroke followed in the early 1980s. As a result of these health issues, and her own reluctance to put herself back in the spotlight, Pat Nixon rarely came out for public appearances over the last two decades of her life.
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