Thelma Catherine Ryan was born in the late hours of March 16, 1912 in a miner’s shack in the small town of Ely, Nevada to William and Kate Ryan. At her mother’s insistence, she was named Thelma, though her father called her Babe – “my St. Patrick’s Babe in the morning.”
Thelma’s family moved to the farming community of Artesia, California shortly after her birth and their house, on a ten acre truck farm, lacked electricity and running water. The stories of traveling to far away places that Will Ryan told his children had a particularly strong impression on young Thelma.
Her childhood was to end early with the deaths of both of her parents, her mother from a kidney affliction known as Bright’s disease when she was 13 and her father of tuberculosis five years later. Thelma assumed all of the household responsibilities; her brother Tom saw in his sister many of the same qualities as their mother, that she “had a big heart. She sacrificed and did things without complaining.”
She enrolled at Fullerton Junior College in 1931 as Patricia to honor her father. In 1934 she enrolled at the University of Southern California on a scholarship, and graduated cum laude three years later. During this time she worked multiple jobs, including as a telephone operator, typist, bookkeeper, janitor, X-ray technician, retail clerk in Bullocks Wilshire Department Store and extra in the film industry.
Pat began teaching at Whittier Union High School, where students remembered the popular Miss Ryan as a disciplinarian with high standards who sought to instill pride in them. One evening Miss Ryan auditioned for the play The Dark Tower when she met a young lawyer named Richard Nixon. The two discovered that they had much in common and Pat liked Nixon’s drive and sense of humor. The pair courted for two years until they were married on June 21, 1940.
While her husband was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, Pat worked as a government economist in San Francisco and the two wrote each other every day. Her life took on a new degree of excitement when her husband was elected to Congress. Her family was growing, too, as she gave birth to two daughters, Patricia in February 1946 and Julie in July 1948.
After only six years in Congress, Richard Nixon was sworn in as Vice President. Mrs. Nixon as “Second Lady” – the Vice President’s wife – from 1953 to 1961 traveled globally as an Ambassador of Goodwill. Her position finally offered her the opportunity to see the world, just as she had wished as a girl. Her vast travels included to countries in Asia, Africa, Central America and the Far East. She preferred to be “out in the field,” visiting children’s hospitals, orphanages and schools; in Panama, she even visited a leper colony and was nearly killed by anti-American demonstrators in Venezuela.
She took prominent roles in her husband’s political campaigns – in 1960, 1962 and 1968 – while commenting that her role was “reflective of women all over America taking an active part, not only in political life, but in all activities.”
In 1969 the country had a new president – and a new first lady. When asked what her project as first lady would be, she replied “people are my project.” She proceeded to encourage Americans of all ages to volunteer for needy causes. She focused on community services, believing that the power of large voluntary efforts could make a difference and yield substantial results. Much of the special emphasis she placed on ordinary people shone through in her efforts to answer every one of the 1500 letters she received monthly.
Her care extended to the White House as well; she added more than 600 paintings and furnishings to the collection, the single largest acquisition by any administration. She refurbished nine rooms and renovated the Map Room and the China Room. But her efforts went beyond simply restoration. She added wheelchair ramps, had guide pamphlets translated into foreign languages and opened the White House for tours in the evenings. She oversaw the installation of exterior lighting of the White House and grounds, allowing it to literally glow a soft-white and changed protocol so as to allow the American flag over the mansion to be flown twenty-four hours a day. Historian William Seale remarked that “the great collection of White House Americana today is the long shadow of Mrs. Nixon. The impulse, the idea, and the energy were hers.”
Over her five-and-a-half years in the White House, Mrs. Nixon became the most traveled first lady in U.S. history, her record only to be later surpassed by Hillary Clinton. She was the first First Lady to visit Africa, China and the Soviet Union and the first to enter a combat zone – during a visit to South Vietnam – when she flew in an open-door helicopter across jungles where fighting ensued only a short distance below.
When Mrs. Nixon learned in 1970 that a devastating earthquake had ravaged Peru, she organized relief efforts and visited the country, climbing over rubble to deliver nine tons of donated supplies. Her presence had major political ramifications and she became the first North American to receive the Peruvian government’s highest distinction, the Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun.
In Africa she served as the official representative of the President, donning traditional native costumes, meeting leaders in Liberia and addressing the national assembly in Ghana while enjoying a welcome to the Ivory Coast by 250,000 people cheering “Vive Madame Nixon!” In China her “personal diplomacy” was at its best as she toured cities, communes and schools with the large American press corps in tow, allowing millions at home to see China. Premier Zhou Enlai was so fond of her that he gave two giant pandas to the U.S. as a gift.
Mrs. Nixon was a powerful force within the administration. Though politically astute, she did not publicly discuss policy; however, she publicly supported the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming the first in a line of First Ladies to do so, and encouraged her husband to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court.
She was instrumental in the 1972 campaign and delivered a speech to the Republican National Convention, the first for a Republican First Lady. “I don’t think in such a short period, we ever had such a change in our history,” she told the press on a campaign trip.
The Vietnam War ended not long into the second Nixon Administration and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger remarked that he had never before heard Mrs. Nixon “so elated…[and] enormously pleased.” In 1974, when faced with questions about Watergate, Mrs. Nixon replied, “I know only what I read in the newspapers.” The First Lady felt that the power of some of her husband’s key staff members had grown too far in excess and that the president himself was becoming removed from key details within the administration. All the while Mrs. Nixon stayed true: “I have great faith in my husband. I happen to love him.”
President Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974; weeping, Mrs. Nixon told him, “We’re all very proud of you, Daddy.” The Nixons left the White House aboard the presidential helicopter the next morning and returned to San Clemente by nightfall.
Retirement brought Mrs. Nixon peace, relaxation and precious time with her children and grandchildren. She dedicated the Patricia Nixon Elementary School in Cerritos in 1975 and attended the dedications of the Nixon and Reagan Libraries in 1990 and 1991, respectively. On June 22, 1993, a day after her 53rd wedding anniversary, Pat Nixon passed away and tributes poured in from around the world. Her popularity immense, she was listed on Gallup‘s most admired women list fourteen times, from 1959 to 1962 and 1968 to 1979.