Presidential Mothers: Hannah Nixon a quiet and calm influence on sons

Published 1:28 pm Tuesday, May 23, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

Hannah Milhous was a member of a well-to-do family, and things were going well for her.

She had just finished two years at Whittier College. Hannah and her family members, devout Quakers, were at a meeting when a visitor came in.  That visitor was Frank Nixon, who was not a Quaker, which was easy to tell because Frank could not seem to stop talking.

The Quakers were quiet, thoughtful people.

Hannah is described in Bonnie Angelo’s book, “First Mothers, The Women Who Shaped the Presidents:” “Hannah was a young lady of admirable composure, with a grave face made more arresting by surprisingly dark, straight, heavy eyebrows and a concave uptilted nose.”  Does this not sound like a description of the 37th President, Richard M. Nixon?).

The quiet, contemplative Hannah and the outgoing, loud, short-tempered Frank were attracted.  Four months and 10 days after Frank Nixon and Hannah Milhous met at the Quaker meeting, they were married.

Their marriage was one that had many rough spots, but Hannah worked tirelessly to provide a happy, secure home for her family.

One of Richard Nixon’s brothers said: “He (Frank) was up-front, open-hearted, generous, but very opinionated.  He was the leader of the family, no question, but my mother was the peacemaker. My father would spout off before thinking about it. He loved a funny story and he loved to argue—it was up to my mother to make peace.”

All of that loud boisterous activity was hard for quiet, thoughtful Hannah.

Frank Nixon bought land in Yorba Linda, Calif., with the idea of starting a lemon grove. He built a house there. It is believed that Frank Nixon ordered a kit from a mail order company from which to build his house. The house was small; it had only about 900 square feet of floor space, but it was home to Hannah, who was able to display her wedding gifts—her china, silver, pretty pitcher etc.  Also, she had room for her piano, which she hoped her children would learn to play. (Richard actually became quite an accomplished pianist.)  The family fitted into the tiny dining room for their meals, and, at night, they would gather in the living room to sing songs around the piano.  The growing boys slept in what was really a loft above the main floor. It was/is a strong house which still stands and is open to visitors. It was in front of that little house is where the former Richard Nixon’s funeral was held with Rev. Billy Graham officiating. Pat and Richard are buried in the garden near the tiny house that was their home.

It turned out that the soil and climate in Yorba Linda wasn’t right for growing lemons, so Frank had to seek another means of making a living. He bought a little plot of land and built a service station near Whittier, Calif.  The service station was a more successful venture. One reason that it was a success was that Hannah “worked her fingers to the bone” baking pies and cakes to sell at the station.

In her book, Bonnie Angelo says: “Before the sun had hoisted itself over the blue gray hills, Hannah would have turned out dozens of pies and cakes, maybe 50 before she was finished, and she knew they would all be sold by closing time for 35 cents.”

Hannah was a busy mother. She and Frank had five sons between 1909 and 1930.

Harold was born in 1909, Richard in 1913, Donald in 1914, Arthur in 1918, and, 12 years later, Edward in 1930. When Hannah was doing all the baking for sale at the service station, her son who she always called Richard, not Dick, was often in the kitchen with her.  Hannah said, “Richard always seemed to need me more than the four other sons did.”

Many of the traits that were part of Richard Nixon’s personality could be detected early, according to the Angelo book: “Miss George (Richard’s first grade teacher) remembered that Richard never smiled or laughed which suggested a saturnine personality, a darker version of his mother’s traits, might have been a product of his genes.” Even at that early age certain traits could be detected would present themselves in later years.

Tragedy hit the family in 1925, when Arthur, the next to the youngest Nixon son died of tubercular encephalitis. The Nixons were devastated. Hannah’s Quaker faith helped her.  She saw Arthur’s death as God’s will. It had an opposite effect on Frank who believed that God was punishing him for his transgressions.

From that time on, he closed his service station on Sunday and began testifying in church.  Then Harold, the outgoing member of the family, took tuberculosis. The family took Harold to Arizona where they believed the climate might help him. Hannah nursed Harold and other TB patients for three years, but Harold died in 1933.  By the time that Richard was 20, two of his brothers had died. It is believed that the death of those brothers may have had a detrimental effect on Richard.

Hannah had always encouraged her sons to reach for the stars. She really hoped that Richard would become a minister, but that was not to be.  He graduated from Whittier College and wanted to go to law school but there was no money.  Triumph. He was accepted at Duke University Law School in North Carolina where he was offered a full scholarship. The President of Whittier College probably pulled the strings that resulted in Duke offering the high-achieving Richard a full scholarship.

After Richard graduated from Duke, he could not find a job. Once again, his mother came to his rescue. She asked an old lawyer friend in Whittier to let her son join his practice. The friend did just that. It was while he was working at that law firm that Richard, then often called Dick, heard about a pretty young lady who was teaching at the local high school. He made it a point to meet Miss Ryan, whose name was Thelma, but who was called Pat.

As soon as he met Pat, Dick decided he was going to marry her. Pat was not nearly so sure about that, but she finally decided that marrying Dick Nixon was a good idea so she said “yes.”

Pat and Dick were married just before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, Dick decided that he should join the Navy. With Dick gone, it would have been nice if Hannah and her daughter-in-law, Pat, could have developed a close relationship, but that did not happen. Pat said that she and her mother-in-law did not have much in common. They did, however, have one thing in common:  they both would sacrifice everything to support and advance Richard.

After serving in the Navy in the Pacific and receiving his discharge, luck was with Dick. The Republicans were looking for a candidate to run as California’s 12th District Representative in the U.S. House of Representative. Dick, who had all of the right qualifications, was chosen. He won that race and many more. He also lost some races and would become quite bitter. There were times when his personality was a lot like that of his mother, but, at other times, it seemed that he had inherited certain undesirable personality traits from his father and that did not work well.

Hannah supported her son in his every election as long as she lived, but she did not live to see him become President. She died on Sept. 30, 1967, and Richard Milhous Nixon was not inaugurated as President until 1969. The following information is found in Angelo’s book: “In his wrenching farewell to the White House staff after he resigned, Nixon said as he spoke of his mother, ‘She will have no book written about her –but she was a saint’.”