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Thelma Catherine Ryan was born on March 16, 1912, in Ely, Nevada, to Katherine and William Ryan Sr. Born on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, her father nicknamed her his “St. Patrick’s Babe.” The moniker “Pat” stuck with her for the rest of her life.1

After graduating from high school, Pat attended Fullerton Junior College and the University of Southern California, graduating in 1937 with a degree in education and merchandising.2 Afterwards, she moved to Whittier, California, where she worked as a high school teacher. While auditioning for a local theatre production, she met Richard Nixon and the two were married on June 21, 1940.3 The couple then moved to Washington, D.C.

While Richard Nixon served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Pat Nixon worked for the Office of Price Administration.4 After the war, the Nixons welcomed two daughters Patricia (Tricia) and Julie. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon pursued a political career, serving as a U.S. representative, senator, and eventually vice president. Pat actively participated in campaign efforts throughout Richard’s career, including the presidential campaigns of 1960 and 1968.

On January 20, 1969, the Nixons moved into the White House. As first lady, Pat Nixon was particularly passionate about volunteerism, encouraging community engagement and publicly supporting several organizations, including the American Red Cross, the Girl Scouts, the American Cancer Society.5 In addition, Pat Nixon worked to make the People’s House accessible to all, including those with visual or hearing impairments, international visitors, and individuals with limited mobility. She added sign language and audio interpretation, multilingual tour booklets, and wheelchair ramps.

Pat Nixon also implemented many new ideas and programs that became White House traditions. For example, she created new public tours of the White House, including the Spring and Fall Garden Tours. She also began the tradition of displaying an official gingerbread house in the State Dining Room, and spearheaded efforts to illuminate the exterior of the Executive Mansion at night.

During her tenure as first lady, Pat Nixon worked closely with White House Curator Clement Conger on preservation and acquisition efforts. She acquired more than six hundred items for the White House Collection, and renovated and redecorated most of the rooms on the Ground and State Floors.6

Pat Nixon also traveled extensively as first lady, serving as a diplomatic envoy for her husband. In 1969, she traveled to an active war zone in Vietnam, meeting with wounded American troops and local orphans.7 In 1970, she brought humanitarian aid to Peru after a massive earthquake. In 1972, she became the first first lady to travel to Africa, visiting the countries of Liberia, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.8 That year, she also accompanied President Nixon on important diplomatic missions to China and the Soviet Union. In fact, she mentioned a fondness for giant pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, which resulted in the gift of two giant pandas to the Smithsonian National Zoo.

On August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned from office following the Watergate scandal, and the Nixons moved out of the White House. Two years later, Pat Nixon suffered a stroke; as a result, she participated in few public events. Pat Nixon passed away on June 22, 1993, and she is buried at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California.

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, 17.
  2. “Pat Nixon, First Lady of the United States,” Nixon Library,
  3. Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story.
  4. Ibid, 73.
  5. “Pat Nixon: A Life of Service,” Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Exhibit, “Pat Nixon: A Life of Service,” Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Exhibit,
  6. “White House Gets a New Reception Room,” Washington Post, June 6, 1970; Sarah Booth Conroy, “Raising Renovation Money: Making White House 'Look Its Best',” Washington Post, May 21, 1972; “White House - Redecoration (Nixon Administration) (1),” National Archives and Records Administration,
  7. Frances Lewine, “First Lady Pat Nixon Cheers Men in Vietnam,” The Robesonian, July 30, 1969.
  8. Frances Lewine, “Pat Nixon Off to Africa,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 31, 1971.