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A woman of steel

She was born “Thelma Catherine.” Not liking the name “Thelma,” her father called her “Babe.” Her friends, however, knew her as “Buddy.” It was not until she entered college though that she finally settled on a name—one which she gave herself—”Pat.” Many years later she got another new name, “Plastic Pat.”

You knew her better as “Patricia Ryan Nixon.”

The unbecoming “Plastic” moniker came about during her husband’s vice presidential bid. During his famous “Checkers” speech, there was only one cameraman. He told Pat that he couldn’t predict when he would be turning the camera on her, so she should keep a smile on her face. She did … throughout the entire speech. This unfortunately gave folks the impression that she had a rigid personality. The truth was that she was anything but.

Pat had tremendous gumption and drive, as well as a great wit. But, her life was tough. Both of her parents were dead by the time she was seventeen, forcing her to keep house for her brothers. Work on their hardscrabble California farm was rough going and never ending. And on top of her countless duties at home, Pat took a janitorial job sweeping out banks. But, despite this mountain of responsibilities, she never stopped dreaming. She longed to go to college; a dream that was unthinkable at that time.

Learning of a couple who wanted to hire someone to drive their car from California to New York City, she jumped at the chance. It was the middle of the Depression, so when she finally parked that car in New York, she decided to stay. Her first job there was in a hospital.

Pat was fun and she was funny. People talked about her great sense of humor. She liked nothing better than taking the TB patients outdoors for a stroll. Tucked under her arm would be a tray from the cafeteria. Placing it underneath her, she would—much to everyone’s amusement—slide down the hills on the hospital grounds. The best part was that she enjoyed it more than anyone.

Pat left New York many months later when her brothers told her they had finally raised enough money for her to attend the University of Southern California.

There on top of a heavy study load, Pat worked as an assistant to a professor, an assistant to the university’s vice president, a cafeteria waitress, a librarian, a movie extra and an assistant buyer at a local department store. In spite of it, she graduated cum laude with a double certification in merchandising and teaching. The college gave this credential the equivalence of a Master’s Degree, later making Pat the first First Lady to earn a graduate degree.

Upon graduation Pat got a job teaching at Whittier High School. It was there that she fell in love with their community theater. One day a young lawyer was trying out for a show. He claimed that he looked up on the stage, saw Pat and fell madly in love. He asked her to marry him on their first date. The answer was “no.” But, he persisted. Pat told her roommate that, “this guy was really putting the moves on her, but she wasn’t sure if she would continue going out with him. But, she was sure of one thing—that he could very well be president someday!”

What really attracted the pair to each other was their mutual determination and their remarkable intelligence. Additionally, an ambitious Pat did not want to stay in California; she wanted to see the world. In Dick Nixon she saw this opportunity. They married in 1940.

When, in 1946, Dick decided to run for California’s 12th Congressional District, Pat was eight months pregnant with Tricia. She packed up the house, moved them and began the campaign. A month later she delivered the baby. Six hours later she was up typing and doing research for Dick’s speeches. This may well have been the sweetest time in their marriage; a time when they were the Pat and Dick Team. Little did Pat realize then, however, just how much of her life she would have to give up or how much of her privacy she would never enjoy again.

The one thing she did love about the job was the traveling, and she proved to be an outstanding American goodwill ambassador. She never distanced herself from the crowds of well wishers, but chose instead to mingle with the people, endearing her to them. She was the first First Lady to travel to a combat zone, where she insisted on visiting the wounded soldiers. Pat felt it was necessary for her to talk to the troops herself; to try to cheer and comfort them.

Photos from her many trips abroad show a radiant Pat touching, hugging and holding strangers. These acts of genuine sincerity were Pat’s true self, her authenticity obvious to all who observed her.

When the Nixons visited China in 1972, it was Pat who opened up the Chinese public to America. Whenever she could, she talked to the local people. During one of these chats, a misunderstanding occurred.

Pat was a smoker—a heavy smoker—but she preferred that people didn’t know it. During this outing, she wanted a cigarette. Gesturing to one of the security men, she pointed to a pack of Chinese cigarettes. The logo on the front was a panda. It was unclear if Pat wanted a cigarette or a panda, but the unexpected outcome was that China presented the U.S. not with some cigarettes, but rather with a pair of pandas!

During her tenure as First Lady, she was the first to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment and to voice her pro-choice view on abortion. Pat actively lobbied her husband to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court and she was the first First Lady to wear slacks in public.

It was Pat’s fondest wish to make the White House with its grounds and gardens open to the public. She also had lighting installed around the White House and various Washington, D.C. monuments so that they would be visible at night for all to see.

It was not widely known that Pat Nixon worked diligently behind the scenes at restoring the White House. Where Jackie Kennedy left off decorating, Pat continued. When Pat arrived at the mansion, one third of the furnishings were antiques. During her time there she doubled the number of antiques, all the while giving credit to others rather than taking it herself.

President Nixon never discussed policy with Pat. Incredibly—and unfortunately—she only learned about the Watergate break-in when she read about it in the papers. During this upheaval, it was she who became the rock to her husband even though it was clear that Richard was not telling her the truth about a number of important issues. In the end, he didn’t even have the courage to tell her he was thinking of resigning. Instead he had daughter Julie tell her.

But the family persuaded him not to. In 1974, he made the final decision to resign. The President had his secretary tell Pat.

The biggest regret Mrs. Nixon had from that dismal period in their lives was that she could not convince her husband to destroy his private tapes, which in the end spelled his doom.

Interestingly, he could have legally destroyed them because at that time in history, the tapes were considered private property and belonged exclusively to the president. Once they were subpoenaed, however, it was too late. Desperate for their disposal, Richard never asked Pat, leaving her out of the matter completely. She suffered greatly from this dismissal.

Shortly after his resignation, Richard nearly died from phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins which caused him to go into cardiac arrest. For 23 days he clung to life while Pat remained by his side, all the while maintaining her role as the family’s “rock.” The real tragedy was that by then she had developed health problems of her own.

In 1976, Pat had a serious stroke, leaving her with slurred speech and unable to move her left side. But, being the resolute woman she was, through sheer determination she regained her motor and speaking skills.

In 1991, Pat witnessed the opening of the Nixon Library. She died two years later of a second stroke brought on by emphysema and lung cancer due to a lifetime of heavy smoking. She was buried at the library where Nixon was seen weeping over her grave. Perhaps by then he realized how central she had been in supporting him—literally propping him up—throughout his life; that she was a proud and dignified woman, a woman of tremendous strength. He died a year later.

Contrary to the unkind title that was given Pat so many years before, she was anything but plastic. Pat Ryan Nixon was a woman with a constitution of steel.