Onward & Upward: Patricia Ryan Nixon
First Lady Pat Nixon at the 1972 Republican National Convention.
Click HERE to watch a short film on Pat Nixon’s extraordinary life.
Thelma Catherine Ryan was born just before midnight on March 16, 1912, in a miner’s shack in Ely, Nevada. Although spring was just a few days away, the night was consumed by frost high in the mountains of Eastern Nevada. The future first lady’s father, the proud son of first generation Irish immigrants, decided almost immediately that his new daughter’s birthday should thereafter be celebrated on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. He affectionately christened her, “My St. Patrick’s babe in the morning.” Thelma’s parents, Will and Kate Ryan, had come to Nevada from South Dakota, where Will went to work as a timekeeper in the Veteran mine in Ely. Will and his wife, Kate, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany when she was just 10 years old, hoped to create a better life for themselves and for their family in the American west. The Ryans were in many ways, typical of the millions of Americans who populated the West in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although she was born into humble circumstances, Thelma Catherine Ryan’s sights for her future were never limited by the modest circumstances into which she came in the world. In time, Thelma Catherine Ryan, adopting the name Patricia in honor of her father, became known and loved around the nation and around the world as Pat Nixon, a woman of strength, dignity, warmth, and courage.
“California, Here We Come…”
Shortly after young Thelma Ryan marked her first birthday, her mother, Kate, began to urge her husband to move the family to Southern California to begin farming. Will, a lifelong adventurer who had traveled to such far-flung places as the Philippine tropics and the frigid Alaskan wilderness in pursuit of his own dreams, was not eager to settle down in what he saw as the relatively dull life of a farmer. Yet, Kate persisted and prevailed. The Ryans traded their life in a small mining town in Nevada and set down roots on a 10 and a half acre farm in Artesia, California.
Reading became her favorite pastime and, as she told me years later, the “biggest influence in my life. It gave me a horizon beyond the small town we were living in. Somehow I always knew there was more in the world than what we were experiencing then…”
“Woman of the House”
In the summer of 1925, when Thelma Ryan was thirteen years old, her life would change forever. Her mother, Kate, whom she loved and leaned on, grew ill from kidney disease and was later diagnosed with cancer of the liver. With only her two brothers, Tom and Bill, and her father at home, Thelma had to step into the role of “woman of the house.” As Julie Nixon Eisenhower would one day write about her mother, Pat Nixon, in the biography, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, “Kate’s death made [my mother] old before her time. She told me matter-of-factly, ‘When my mother died I just took responsibility for my own life.’”
Senior Year at Excelsior High School
As Thelma Ryan began her senior year at Excelsior High School, another family tragedy began to unfold, her father, Will, who had suffered with a persistent cough was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While her activities at school and her chores at the farm did not cease, young Thelma took responsibility for caring for her father. To help pay for her father’s care, she took on a position as a bank teller for the First Nation Bank in Artesia. The combined work was difficult and exhausting, but it helped provide her father with the medical care he needed until her passed away in May 1930. Thelma Ryan was 18 years old.
In the fall of 1932, Patricia Ryan or Pat (as she now preferred to be called), was offered the opportunity to travel outside California for the first time in her life. An elderly couple from Connecticut, who had been visiting California for several months, needed someone to drive them, and their car, back East. Despite never having driven outside the state – let alone across the country – the couple hired the 20-year-old after a single interview. The payment consisted of a bus ticket home to Artesia, however, the trip was the first of what was to be many great adventures for Pat Ryan. Rather than return to California right away, Pat Ryan decided to spend some time in the east, spending 2-years in New York before heading home to Artesia, California in August 1934.
A Dream Realized
At a time when only one woman in 10 completed a 4-year degree, Pat Ryan was determined to receive a college education. When she and her brothers all graduated from Excelsior High School in 1929, they had each earned a scholarship to University of Southern California (USC). However, not all could take the leap immediately into higher education due to their father’s illness and care of the family farm. Therefore, they decided among themselves that Tom would be the first to attend USC, while Bill and Pat took on the responsibility of running the farm and caring for their father.
In the fall of 1934, Pat entered USC – a dream of higher education finally coming to fruition. Pat qualified for a research fellowship, much like today’s work-study programs which covered her tuition. Unfortunately, it was not enough to live on. Over the course of her years at USC, Pat held a variety of jobs to help meet expenses. She worked as a salesgirl at Bullocks – a fashionable department store in Los Angeles – and as a Hollywood movie extra. Three years after beginning her studies at USC, Pat Ryan graduated with honors and an equivalent to a Master’s Degree in Education.
An Enthusiasm for Learning
“Thus to you I say: never lose your enthusiasm – merely direct it – and that same enthusiasm will take you ‘where you want to go.’” – Pat Nixon
Pat Ryan’s love of learning led her to her first full-time job after graduating from USC – teaching five classes a day at Whittier Union High School. Her outstanding credentials as a student at USC helped her secure a position in the midst of the Great Depression when employment was scarce and the competition was fierce.
“Pat not only was popular with students, but more importantly, respected by them also.”
– Dr. Heber Holloway, Whittier Union High School faculty colleague
In the fall of 1937, Pat Ryan quickly became a favorite of the students. She taught business courses, typing, and shorthand. Her approach to teaching and learning reflected her approach to life: look for the positive. As a result, Pat Ryan expected her students to arrive on time and ready to work, thus holding them all to the same high standard to which she held herself.
“The Dark Tower”
At Whittier High School, teachers were expected to be involved in the community outside of school. Since Pat Ryan had experience in acting during her time at USC, she decided her community involvement would be to try out for the play, The Dark Tower, which was being staged by the Whittier Community Players. Unbeknownst to Pat Ryan, also at the tryouts was the up-and-coming young Whittier attorney, Richard M. Nixon.
“I met this guy tonight who says he is going to marry me.” – February 1938, Pat Nixon
A Wedding at Mission Inn
On June 21, 1940, Pat Ryan married Richard Nixon in a small ceremony at the Mission Inn in Riverside, California. The Couple exchanged vows in from of a Quaker minister with only family and a dozen friends in attendance.
“Dearest Heart…It is our job to go forth together and accomplish great ends and we shall do it too.” – Richard Nixon
The Second World War and Wartime Work at the OPA
In June 1943, after three years of marriage, Richard and Pat Nixon travelled to San Francisco, where Richard, a naval officer, was ordered to report in preparation for deployment to the South Pacific. Although Pat Nixon did not know anyone in the coastal city, she decided to stay so that when Richard returned from the war in the Pacific, she would be there.
During the war, women were entering the work force in large numbers as millions of men joined the armed forces. With Pat’s credentials, she obtained a position and an annual salary of $2,000.00 with the Office of Price Administration (OPA) – a federal agency established to help control prices during the course of the war.
In July 1944, Richard returned to the United Stated from service in the South Pacific. Several months later, Richard received orders to report to the East Coast, where they were stationed in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Nixons relocation required Pat to leave her position with the OPA. However, Pat had left her mark as she was highly respected and highly skilled. As an indication of her professionalism and skill, Pat had earned an annual salary of $3,200 – more than twice what the average female full-time civilian worker was earning at the time.
On the Campaign Trail: The Pat and Dick Team
In the fall of 1945, while still in the Navy and stationed on the East Coast, Richard Nixon was contacted by a group of community leaders in and around Whittier, California, who wanted to consider him as a candidate for Congress in 1946. Pat and Richard were especially eager to return to small-town life. However, after discussing the possibility of a campaign – and the opportunity to live in Washington D.C. should they win – they both agreed that Richard should return to Whittier and run.
The Pat and Dick Team as their first campaign was labelled began with victory in 1946 as Richard Nixon was the first citizen from Whittier to be elected to Congress. In 1952, Richard Nixon was approached to be the running mate of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Presidential election, thus began another round of campaigning for the Pat and Dick Team. After a difficult campaign, the 1952 Presidential Election concluded on November 6th with Eisenhower and Nixon claiming victory.
Pat Nixon: The Second Lady of the United States (1953-1960)
On January 20, 1953, in the height of winter, Pat Nixon stood on the balcony of the Capitol Building during the 1953 Presidential Inauguration. In her hands, she held two Nixon Family Bibles – heirlooms of Richard Nixon. As he placed his hand on the bibles and took the oath of office of the Vice-Presidency, Pat Nixon, Second Lady of the United States held them proudly. She continued the tradition in 1957 as her husband Richard Nixon and President Dwight D. Eisenhower were re-elected for a second term.
Goodwill Tour to the Far East
In 1953, President Eisenhower asked the Vice President and Pat Nixon to represent the United States on a “Goodwill Tour.” Crossing oceans, continents, and time zones, the Nixons and their official party of just five had to cope with the challenging conditions of international travel in the days before the “Jet Age.” At each stop, Second Lady Pat Nixon departed from the normal round of official appointments, instead she visited more than two hundred schools, hospitals, and other public institutions looking into social and educational conditions.
When President Eisenhower welcomed the Nixons back to Washington D.C. ten weeks after they had left, he exclaimed, “Dick, I’ve heard some pretty good reports on you. But the reports on you, Pat, have been wonderful.”
Building on the success of their 1953 Goodwill Tour, President Eisenhower next sent the Nixons to Central America and the Caribbean to improve relations between the United States and its neighbors to the South. Once again, Pat Nixon met with hospital patients, visited with residents in public housing projects, and spent time with children in schools and orphanages. She would, according to one newspaper reporter, go anywhere she could to “earn friends for the U.S.”
Behind the success of the trip was a lot of work, as a correspondent for Time magazine who traveled with the Nixons described:
Between the scrap book pages there was another story – the story of grueling eighteen hour days, of hard cramming that would stagger a Phi Beta Kappa, of life out of suitcases, and schedules regulated right down to an item reading “rest – ten minutes.”
Pat Nixon’s warmth, energy, and grace earned the United States long-lasting goodwill.
1958 Caracas Trip
Seeking to strengthen the United States’ position in South America, the Nixon traveled to Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela in April 1958. The first several stops on the trip were uneventful. But when the Nixon’s reached Peru, violence-prone mobs led by Communist agitators threatened the Nixons safety. Reports that an attempt would be made on their lives in Venezuela reached the Secret Service which traveled with them.
When the Nixons landed in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, an angry, seething mob disrupted the arrival ceremony. Throwing stones and spitting at the Vice President and Pat Nixon, the hostile airport reception was just the first of the dangers the Nixons would face that day. As their motorcade drove through the capital city, more than 500 demonstrators quickly mobbed the cars, pelting them with rocks and beating the windows with lead pipes and baseball bats. Others began to rock the cars, hoping to overturn them. The brutal assault lasted for 12 minutes. Finally a path was cleared and the cars sped to safety. The Nixons were very nearly killed in Caracas, but Pat Nixon remained, in the words of an aide was in the car with her, “serene.”
Presidential Campaign of 1968
Pat Nixon campaigned vigorously which meant that her schedule was almost as full as the candidate’s. She was interviewed during a flight aboard the campaign plane.
Pat Nixon: The First Lady of the United States (1969-1974)
A Warm and Welcoming First Lady
At home in the United States, First Lady Pat Nixon made it a mission of hers to make the White House “the People’s House” by making it more accessible than ever before. She established the Spring and Fall Garden Tours and the Candlelight Tours at Christmas. She made the Mansion more accessible to persons with disabilities, and regularly opened the White House to underprivileged children from the Washington D.C. area during Halloween as well as seniors citizens during Thanksgiving. Pat Nixon was also responsible for lighting the exterior of the White House at night. The non-denominational Sunday Services were also among her innovations.
She served as Hostess-in-Chief for official visitors as the Nixons held more State Dinners than anyone before or since. In 1973, Mrs. Nixon and her press office organized and hosted the dinner given in honor of the returned POWs. While there were many events in which Pat Nixon hosted, this event in particular sent waves throughout the country and touched the lives of millions at home and abroad. It is held as one of the most memorable occasions in the history of the White House.
Pat Nixon also spent an enormous time on her mail. She as well as her staff spent a considerable amount of time answering her correspondence from Americans from all walks of life. As the “Peoples First Lady,” Pat Nixon believed it was essential to pay close attention to her correspondence and make sure that all letters addressed to her were personally answered and in a timely manner.
Restoration of the White House
Pat Nixon was enormously successful in acquiring historic furniture, artwork, and other decorative arts for the White House’s permanent collection. She did more to bring such priceless items to the White House than any First Lady before or since. Working closely with White House Curator Clement Conger, the members of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, The White House Historical Association, and the Smithsonian Institution, First Lady Pat Nixon was able to complete the restoration of the White House that had first began during the Kennedy Administration under the direction of First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
“People can sense when another person is friendly and genuinely interested. A smile is the universal language.” – Pat Nixon
First Lady and Ambassador of Goodwill
Pat Nixon dreamed of traveling the world. As wife of the Vice President and as First Lady, Pat Nixon would represent the United States in more than 75 countries on six continents, charming millions and winning friends and allies for her country. Remarkably, Pat Nixon was the first “Second Lady” to travel abroad on behalf of the United States. And, for more than 20 years, she held the distinction of being the most traveled First Lady in American history.
When Pat Nixon became First, Lady, the war in Vietnam was raging. Half-a-million American combat troops were fighting alongside the South Vietnamese in an effort to prevent their country’s takeover by the communists in North Vietnam. Just six months after entering the White House, First Lady Pat Nixon traveled to South Vietnam, becoming the first First Lady ever to enter an active combat zone.
Shortly after arriving in Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, Pat Nixon left the heavily fortified city and flew in and open-door military helicopter directly over the fighting which was still ongoing. She landed first at an orphanage, visiting Vietnamese children who had lost their parents in the war. Her second stop was to an Army Hospital where she comforted wounded soldiers. During her visit, Pat Nixon was asked by several of the soldiers to send notes to their families stating that she had seen them and they were in good spirits.
“Even when people can’t speak your language, they can tell if you have love in your heart.” – Pat Nixon
On May 31, 1970, a deadly earthquake struck some of the most remote, mountainous regions of Peru. The devastation caused by the earthquake killed more than 50,000 people and left anther 800,000 homeless. As reports of the destruction slowly filtered back to the United States, First Lady Pat Nixon grew increasingly concerned about those who survived the quake. Determined to help, Pat Nixon decided to travel to Peru to bring emergency supplies.
As the supplies were unloaded, Pat Nixon and Peru’s First Lady took a hair-raising helicopter flight deep into the Andes to see the worst of the destruction caused by the earthquake. She spent several hours climbing over rubble and comforting the residents of the area. After Pat Nixon Pat Nixon’s visit, a high-ranking Peruvian official declared that, “this visit by Mrs. Nixon has done more to improve the relations with our country than anything the United States has done in a hundred years.”
During Richard Nixon’s “Wilderness Years,” Nixon wrote an article for Foreign Affairs magazine on the importance of establishing good relations with the People’s Republic of China. He wrote, “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.” On February 21, 1972, two years into the presidency, the Nixons arrived in Peking, China and were welcomed by Premier Chou-En-lai. President Richard Nixon extended his hand and shook hands with the Premier in a formal greeting. Pat Nixon, standing in her vibrant red coat held more significance than many had realized as the color red was the symbol of “good luck.”
For Pat Nixon, as Julie Nixon Eisenhower wrote in the biography, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story,
The most memorable event of the trip was meeting Chou En-lai…At one of the banquets, [Pat Nixon and Chou En-lai] discussed her visit to the Peking Zoo to see the giant pandas. When [Pat Nixon] picked up a cylindrical container of Panda Cigarettes in front of her place at the table, with its drawing of two cuddly pandas gamboling on a background of bright-pink paper, she remarked, ‘Aren’t they cute? I love them.’ The premier replied, ‘I’ll give you some.’ ‘Cigarettes?’ [Pat Nixon] queried. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘pandas.’
On April 16, 1972, Pat Nixon formally welcomed two giant pandas to the Washington National Zoo.
“Our success as a nation depends on our willingness to give generously of ourselves for the welfare and enrichment of the lives of others.” – Pat Nixon
Promoting the American Spirit of Volunteerism
Shortly after becoming First Lady, an interviewer asked Pat Nixon what her “project” would be during her years in the White House. She replied simply and sincerely, “People are my project.” And they were. As one longtime reporter would observe years later – after covering ten first ladies – “Pat Nixon was the warmest First Lady I covered and the one who loved people the most.” During her White House years, Pat Nixon’s attention to volunteerism helped direct the spotlight that always follows a first lady on the important, but often little-noticed, work people were doing to serve and strengthen their communities. Pat Nixon worked tirelessly to highlight and promote local volunteer community service organizations around the country. She had been a volunteer for all of her adult life and she strongly believed in what she called the “spirit of people helping people.”
A Return to Private Life: Post-White House Years
She left the White House on August 9, 1974, where First Lady Pat Nixon faced a great challenge of recovery and renewal. The effects of the Watergate scandal, her husband’s decision to resign the Presidency, and their ultimate farewell to the White House and their staff took an emotional toll on the former First Lady. Throughout Pat and Richard Nixon’s years of victory and defeat, both were able to bring each other up from moments of despair.
In May 1975, Pat Nixon traveled back to her hometown of Artesia, now called Cerritos for the opening of an elementary school named in her honor. She remarked with happiness, “I’m proud to have the school carry my name. I always thought that only those who have gone had schools named after them. I am happy to tell you that I’m not gone – I mean not really gone.” While in San Clemente at La Casa Pacifica, Pat Nixon enjoyed the time cultivating her garden, receiving visits from friends and family.
On July 7, 1976, Pat Nixon experienced a stroke which caused her to lose strength in her left arm. She was taken to Long Beach Memorial Hospital where she underwent a variety of examinations to determine the extent of the damage the stroke had caused. Pat Nixon was determined to regain her strength and return home. And, after two weeks in the hospital and physical therapy Pat Nixon had made enormous progress allowing her to return home.
In the last few months in San Clemente, Mrs. Nixon received calls from her former colleague, Clement Conger, the White House Curator who aided her in the restoration of the White House during the administration. Conger insisted that Pat and Richard Nixon sit for formal portraits which would be hung in the White House. Pat Nixon agreed to sit for the formal portrait by the urging of her daughters, Tricia and Julie.
The portrait was painted by Henriette Wyeth Hurd who described the process of depicting the former first lady’s portrait. She remarked, “The eyes reveal an unusual spirit. They are the eyes of a sixteen –year-old-girl – an expression of great sweetness.”
In February 1980, Pat and Richard Nixon moved to the East Coast to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
Pat Nixon met her final years with grace and dignity. She died at home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, on June 22, 1993 surrounded by family. Her legacy and contributions throughout her life continue to serve as a reminder of her strength and endearing love for people. She is buried at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California.