Pat Nixon Juvenile/Educational Biography
Thelma Catherine (Pat) Ryan Nixon
(March 16, 1912-June 22, 1993)
Patricia Ryan was born March 16, 1912, to William Ryan, Sr., and his wife Kate Halberstadt Ryan. Although Thelma Catherine was her name, her father called her his “St. Patrick’s babe in the morn” because she was born just hours before St. Patrick’s Day. Eventually, she changed her name to Patricia upon the death of her father in 1930. She was the only daughter of three children from the marriage between Kate and William. The family moved from Ely, Nevada, where Pat was born, to Artesia (now Cerritos), California, when she was 1.
Pat was an excellent student and a hard worker. She assumed household duties when her mother became ill and died in 1926. While attending Excelsior High School in Artesia (now Cerritos), she played leads in at least two plays and was an active member of the debate team. She was elected secretary of the student body in both her junior and senior years. After graduation in 1929, she attended a local college at night during the summer to learn shorthand. This was so she could take a job as bookkeeper at the local bank in the afternoons to supplement the family income when her father’s tuberculosis became terminal. She was already working in the mornings there as a janitor. He died in May of 1930. In 1931, she entered Fullerton Junior College and again became active on stage. During the summer of 1933, she attended Columbia University in New York City, taking a course in radiology. In the fall of 1934, she entered the University of Southern California and graduated cum laude in 1937 with training in education through their Bachelor of Science degree in Merchandising and a teaching certificate at the high school level. The university gave this credential the equivalence of a Master’s degree, making Pat the first First Lady to earn a graduate degree. In addition to her collegiate work, Pat supplemented her research scholarship by working as a assistant to a professor, assistant in the office of the university’s vice president, a cafeteria waitress, a librarian, movie extra, and assistant buyer at a local department store.
Upon graduation, Pat was hired as a teacher at Whittier Union High School, teaching classes in typing, bookkeeping, business principles, stenography, and also adult evening classes in typing. In addition, she served as director for the school plays, attended high school sports events and PTA meetings, and was faculty advisor to the Pep Committee. While acting in a community theater production, she met Richard Nixon, a young lawyer in town. They were married on June 21, 1940, in Riverside, California. After their honeymoon trip to Mexico, they settled into their apartment in Whittier.
With World War II, Richard took a job as an attorney in the Office of Emergency Management in Washington, DC. Pat worked as a clerk for the Red Cross. After Pearl Harbor, Richard volunteered and was commissioned as a naval lieutenant (junior grade) and received his first duty assignment to Ottumwa, Iowa. Pat found work there in a bank. Richard was then assigned to duty in the South Pacific, and Pat moved to San Francisco where she found work as an economist for the Office of Price Administration.
At the conclusion of the war, Richard ran for Congress and was elected. Four years later, in 1950, he was elected to the United States Senate. And only two years after that he was tapped by Dwight Eisenhower as his vice presidential running mate. He served through both of Eisenhower’s administrations. By this time, Pat and Richard had two young daughters, Tricia born in 1946 and Julie born in 1948. In addition for her family role, Pat often substituted at events for First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. She traveled frequently with Richard and tried to visit hospitals, schools, orphanages, and senior citizen homes rather than attend teas and luncheons. She created an important but rather subtle role for the nation’s “Second Lady.”
Richard ran for President in 1960 against John Kennedy and lost in a close election. Two years later he ran for Governor of California and lost. Against Pat’s wishes, they moved to New York City where he practiced law. In 1968, the Republican Party again turned to Richard; however, Pat was reluctant to enter the race. She sought to protect herself and her family and, as a result, appeared remote and controlled. This characterization continued to plague her throughout her husband’s political career. Richard’s win was substantial and Pat was now First Lady.
Pat entered the White House at a time of rapidly changing expectations for women and their roles in American society. She became the first First Lady to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment and to disclose her pro-choice view on abortion in reaction to questions on the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion. She actively lobbied her husband to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. And she was the first First Lady to appear in public wearing slacks. Believing firmly in the power of grassroots organizations, Pat adopted as her cause the National Center for Voluntary Action. She honored other organizations that were formed to respond to any local problem. Seeking to make the presidency more accessible, she made the gardens and grounds of the White House available to the public, hosting seasonal tours there. She opened the White House during the holiday season during the evenings so that working-class families could see the decorations. She arranged for the White House and the nearby monuments to be lighted at night so that they would be visible and identifiable by drivers on Pennsylvania Avenue or travelers flying into or out of National Airport. She became the first First Lady to visit a combat zone when she visited Vietnam in 1969.
However, it was a domestic concern that was Richard’s undoing. Pat learned of the criminal activities that came to be known as Watergate from media reports. When she learned of the presidential tapes, she urged Richard to destroy them while they were still considered private property. He did not follow her advice. She fully believed in her husband and his innocence; however, she became increasingly concerned about his isolation within a small circle of supporters. Always the fighter and hard worker, Pat advised Richard to fight the impeachment articles one by one. However, as soon as he decided to resign in late summer of 1974, Pat began to pack. They returned to California and their home in San Clemente. There, Pat supported Richard through a series of rough times that ranged from legal issues to ill health. In 1976, she suffered a stroke; however, through rehabilitation she regained her motor and speaking skills. However, her strength was unsteady. In 1980, she and the former president relocated to the East Coast in order to be closer to their daughters and grandchildren. She died on June 22, 1993; Richard died less than a year later. They are buried at the Richard Nixon Birthplace and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.