Celebrating the life of the well-traveled Pat Nixon
As the wife of an ambitious politician, Pat Nixon had her hands full. Besides keeping up with Richard Nixon’s various political incarnations, she had a household to run and two daughters to raise.
But as a new exhibit on the centennial of her birth at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda makes clear, she had another passion in her life: The desire to see new places and meet people tugged at her as forcefully as her husband’s dreams of winning the presidency.
Pat Nixon, born Thelma Catherine Ryan, is the second most-traveled first lady in history (Hillary Rodham Clinton is first), visiting more than 80 countries as the wife of a congressman, vice president and president. The high-water mark for the world may have been the Nixons’ ground-breaking trip to China in 1972 (remember her stunning red coat?), but there were plenty of other trips that put her in that elite league of people who graduate from tourist to traveler. And she had the attributes of a natural-born traveler: “She was absolutely fearless,” said Bob Bostock, curator of the exhibit. “She was not going to let herself be held back from what she wanted to do by fear. She would not give in to it.”
The future first lady was born in Ely, Nev., in 1912 and grew up — quickly — in Artesia. At age 13, she lost her mother, which meant added responsibilities at home; five years later, her father died. She and her siblings juggled work and school, but when the opportunity presented itself, she took a road trip to New York City and stayed, working as a secretary and, improbably, as an X-ray technician.
She eventually returned to Southern California, where she earned a degree at USC and began teaching at Whittier High. About that time, she met Nixon, whose love letters to her, also on display, reveal a tender side we don’t often associate with the 37th president. They married in 1940.
Her travel horizons, like his quest for higher office, continued to broaden, and she was often dispatched to represent the U.S. In 1969, she went to South Vietnam and spent time with wounded soldiers. She attended the inauguration of President William Tolbert of Liberia in 1972 and, two years later, the swearing-in of Ernesto Geisel of Brazil.
But it may have been her 1970 visit to Peru that showed the world a different picture of a woman many called “plastic Pat.” After an earthquake killed as many as 80,000 people, she flew there to distribute aid to those areas devastated by the quake and the resulting slides, which swept away towns under fast-moving walls of earth and debris.
In a video in the exhibit, Connie Stuart, Pat Nixon’s press secretary, recalled that Peru’s first lady, Consuelo Velasco, took her cue from Nixon, who had climbed over rubble, comforted victims and listened to the anguish of a nation. Before Nixon returned home, she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun, Peru’s highest honor. It is on display.
South America seemed to present special challenges for Pat, who, with her husband, had visited Caracas, Venezuela, while he was vice president in 1958. Demonstrators attacked the motorcade (the vice president and the second lady were in separate cars), throwing rocks and smashing their car windows. Pat Nixon, reports said, never flinched during the 12 minutes that the drivers of the cars looked for an escape. Military aide Don Hughes said she exhibited “more guts than any man I’ve ever seen.”
After President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the couple returned to San Clemente. As private citizens, they made another trip to China in February 1976, but in July of that year, Pat Nixon suffered a debilitating stroke. (They returned in 1979 after her recovery.) They moved back East to be closer to their children and grandchildren. Pat died on June 22, 1993, and her husband died 10 months later. They are buried at the Nixon Library, where on a recent spring afternoon the roses — including the red-black Pat Nixon rose — bloomed with abandon.
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