Rose Mary Woods died five years ago today, on 22 January 2005.
“Those who didn’t know her might think her life was all about a gap on a tape. How wrong they would be.” Rose Mary Woods at her desk in her office in the West Wing in 1974. She was born in Sebring, Ohio, on the day before Christmas in 1917 and died five years ago today in 2005.
Back in the days before everyone was an assistant, when being a secretary was a serious and important vocation, Rose Woods was the epitome —the ne plus ultra— of the executive secretary. Her resume may have highlighted her phenomenal typing and dictation speeds, but that was only the technical basis for the pivotal role she came to play in RN’s life and career. The keenness of her intelligence was matched by the acuity of her insight — into people and events and issues. And the fierceness of her loyalty was matched by an innate integrity that was anchored by the depth of her Catholic faith.
Rose was an intensely private person — and the life of every party. She had a lively sense of personal style and a sly sense of humor. And there is no question that she would have knocked out all the competition if she had appeared on So You Think You Can Dance.
Rose Mary Woods with Senator Nixon in 1952 and in the late 1960s.
Rose first met RN in 1947 when she was working for the Herter Committee of congressmen that went to Europe to examine post-war conditions; their recommendations played a large part in shaping the Marshall Plan. Tasked with preparing all the members’ expenses, she was impressed by the young newcomer from California’s 12th District because he was the only one who submitted meticulously kept records with all the relevant receipts and documents already attached. The impression she made on him was equally strong, and when he was elected to the Senate in 1950, he asked her to join his staff as his private secretary. Thus began an association and a friendship that lasted for the next five decades.
RN’s early staffs — in the House and Senate and then in the Vice President’s office — were blessed with talented and dedicated secretaries. Dottie Cox Donnelley started with him in the House in ’47. On the Senate staff, Rose was joined, in May ’51, by Marje Acker, who became her secretary, and, in July, by Loie Gaunt. Others followed, including P J Everts, Gladys Hook, Betty McVey McCarthy, Rita and Jane Dannenhauer, and Doris Jones Forward. Today Loie Gaunt is the Assistant Secretary Treasurer of the Nixon Foundation’s Board. She and Marje Acker are long-time members of the Foundation’s President’s Council. Loie and Marje, along with the Dannenhauer sisters and Doris Forward have plans to attend the Library’s 20th Anniversary celebrations in July.
At Rose’s Memorial Service, held at the Nixon Library, one of the eulogists was her friend and secretary, Marje Acker. (Imagine how good you have to be to be the secretary to one of the world’s great secretaries.)
by Marje Acker
Marje Acker and Rose Mary Woods in Rose’s West Wing office.
The most important day of my life turned out to be May 1, 1951.
Two and a half months earlier, I had left my home in Portland, Oregon to take a GS-3 clerk-typist job at the State Department. When I heard about a secretarial opening on the staff of the junior Senator from California, I summoned all my courage, applied for the job, and was hired.
My first morning on the job, I was shown to my desk right across the aisle from Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods.
I will never forget her welcoming smile and her high-heeled, ankle-strap shoes. Almost immediately we developed a strong, enduring friendship. Soon I was lucky enough to become her secretary, a post I held during all my years on Richard Nixon’s staff.
Rose was a bright, politically savvy, red-headed Irish Catholic from Ohio, with a wonderful sense of humor, great empathy for people, and impeccable integrity. In reading articles about her recent death, those who didn’t know her might think her life was all about a gap on a tape. How wrong they would be.
To colleagues, friends and family, she was the very best friend you could ever have. She always had time to listen and offer advice if you had a problem. She made you feel you were the most important person in the world to her.
She was a role model and mentor for all of us.
We had such a close working relationship — we both were fast typists, could work under pressure, thrive on little sleep, read each other’s shorthand, confide in and trust each other, laugh and cry together.
The hours were long as we raced against the clock to get speeches finished on time, respond to tons of correspondence, make innumerable lists for events, gifts, and thank-you letters, field and place phone calls, and manage schedules. And yet as I look back on my association with Rose, I’m amazed we were able to fit in just as many good times and laughs.
In 1957, shortly before Phil Acker and I married, he had to go to Washington on San Diego city business. I asked him to be sure to meet Rose and take her to dinner, which he did. Phil knew that I valued Rose’s opinion so much that he later speculated —not entirely without foundation— that if Rose had not approved of him, I might not have married him.
So Rose was much more than a secretary to Richard Nixon. She also was a dear friend of the family and was cited in articles as “the fifth Nixon.” After the 1968 election, she was the first person the President named to his White House staff.
Rose was also close to her own family. I don’t think a week passed that she didn’t find time to call her parents…..
The epitome of thoughtfulness, Rose also made sure the Boss had his bases covered.
When the Nixons and the staff were in Key Biscayne one year, the President and the First Lady invited us for dinner just prior to returning to Washington. Afterward, Rose took the President aside and told him it was my birthday.
Soon after Air Force One was aloft, I was told the President wanted to see me in his cabin. Waiting with him was Pat and the whole staff, complete with a birthday cake. I never did figure out how they had found a cake late on a Sunday evening at a moment’s notice!
Inspired by Rose, we had such fun planning a 25th wedding anniversary party for Bette and Don Hughes, as well as surprise parties for the promotions of General Hughes, one of RN’s military aides, and the President’s doctor, General Walter Tkach.
I can remember just one time we were able to surprise her — a party to mark her 20th anniversary as the President’s secretary. During the weeks of planning we had to talk in code lest she find out. That day we all wore big campaign buttons saying “Rose Woods for President” — a job she might well have been able to handle.
Of course there were sad times as well.
On election night in 1962, when RN ran for California governor, all of us, including Rose, were up all night. I will never forget the Boss coming into the staff room the next morning and individually thanking each of us for our help and saying how sorry he was he had let us down.
During the dark, ugly days of Watergate, Rose and I tried to find little things to relieve the pressure. We had signs on our desk reading Illegetimi non carborundum — “don’t let the bastards get you down!”
So many memories..…in California on a beautiful summer day, driving in her convertible with the top down to Malibu for a couple of hours walking on the beach…..our walks to the Tidal Basin on a spring day in Washington to see the pansy garden…..walking around Camp David between speech drafts…..being together for campaigns, elections, and inaugurations, was well as the dedication of the Nixon Library and the funerals of Mrs. Nixon and the President.
Rose Mary Woods will always be cherished and loved and remembered by her family and the innumerable friends and colleagues who had the privilege of knowing her.
Rose Mary Woods with Vice President Nixon in the Senate Lobby in 1953, and with PN aboard the campaign plane during the 1968 presidential campaign. (1953 photo by Arthur Schatz, 1968 photo by Hank Walker, both for LIFE magazine.)