Celebrating Pat and Dick on Valentine’s Day

When Dick Nixon and Pat Ryan met at a community theater play rehearsal on January 18, 1938, he found that he “could not take my eyes away from her.” He drove her and a friend home that night and asked her for a date. She turned him down with a curt, “I’m busy.” But he continued to pursue her, and when he announced, “Someday I’m going to marry you,” she laughed at him.

Twenty-five-year-old Pat Ryan was happy at the time, living with roommates and finally enjoying her freedom. She was not yet open to romantic love and the obligations of another relationship. She had struggled to raise her younger brothers after their parents died, and now, in her first year teaching business courses at Whittier Union High, she relished her independence and popularity.  Glamorous enough to pick up parts as “extra” in movies, she impressed her students as “quite a dish.” Her colleagues adored her and students, both male and female, had crushes so potent they spied on her after the school day ended

By contrast, twenty-five-year-old Dick Nixon was dissatisfied with his life and wanted change. He found his native ambition blocked. He was living in a small room over his parents’ garage. He was working in a law job he had been reluctant to take, he did not have a girlfriend, and he had returned to the town he had tried to leave behind.

Ignoring her initial standoffishness, Dick continued to woo Pat with the same determination and persistence he would later use to win seven elections. He hated ice-skating, but bloodied himself repeatedly in order to learn so he could go skating with Pat and her friends. On weekends, in order to spend time with her, he drove her to Los Angeles where she stayed with her half-sister and went on dates with other men. He would return on Sunday afternoons and wait until she was ready for him to drive her home. Finally, after two months of trying, he seemed to be making progress. She accepted the flowers he sent her on her birthday (March 16, 1938) and went out to a Laguna restaurant with him a few days later.

That spring and early summer, Dick wrote her notes and, even more intensely, composed poems and songs for her. He showed up at her apartment on school nights, asking her to go for a drive or to join him on walks around the hillside areas surrounding the college. One night he went on a romantic walk by himself (“a star fell right in front of me…Yes—I know I am crazy…but you see, Miss Pat, I like you,”) he wrote her. Pat remained cool. He ventured to write her: “I’d like so very much to see you any time you might be able to stand me…I swear you’ll not be bored if you give me a chance.” And life with him might not have been easy, but he was right- it never was boring.

Dick pursued Pat out of profound need for love and personal fulfillment—which Pat had already found, but he had not. If in 1938 a besotted young lawyer chased an intrigued, but wary young school teacher, 1939 became the year in which Pat Ryan let down her guard and accepted her increasingly confident and impressive suitor- a man who was developing a successful career as a lawyer.

They shared an interest in football; in fact Dick was crazy about the game. On January 2, because their two former schools were squaring off, she accompanied him to Pasadena to watch the Rose Bowl. Dick’s team, Duke, undefeated and un-scored upon in nine games that year, was heavily favored to beat Pat’s USC Trojans. In the final minute of the game, the Trojan quarterback threw a winning touchdown pass. Pat’s team won 7-3, but for Dick the game was a victory. He later told interviewer Frank Gannon that Pat felt sorry for him, and he claimed Duke’s loss helped him win her over.

On his twenty-sixth birthday—January 9th —Pat sent Dick a clock. He was excited by this first gesture signifying that the feelings between them might be mutual.  In his thank you note, he included one of his law firm’s promissory note forms on which he pledged to pay her “four billion dollars when I’m fifty, or before if you’ll let me.” He explained that he had “an uncontrolled impulse” to send this note, “so here it is—crazy—but fun.” He ended exuberantly, “You’re sure tops, Miss Pat and I just have to tell you.”

Pat too began to love Dick, drawn in by his love of adventure, his brilliant mind, and his high sense of purpose- a sense she shared far more than the public recognized. He expressed his intense romantic feelings in letters that revealed his fears that he would “bore her with his thoughts,” and his view of himself as an unaccomplished suitor.  “[T]here was something electric in the usually almost stifling air in Whittier. And now I know,” he wrote her. “An Irish gypsy who radiates all that is happy & beautiful was there. She left behind [means?] her a note addressed to a struggling barrister who looks from a window and dreams. And in the note he found…a great spirit which only great ladies can inspire…And though he is a prosaic person, his heart was filled with that grand poetic music, which makes us wish… she might be forever happy.”

By the spring of 1939, as the orange trees once again unfurled their yearly blossoms, he felt particularly encouraged about their relationship. At one point Pat invited him to supper:  “[W]hy don’t you come Early Wednesday (6)—and I’ll see if I can burn a Hamburger for you.” She sounded on the brink of romance: “Did you see the sunset? A new picture every few minutes. Well? Yes, Pat.” At another time (perhaps on her birthday in March) she accepted a gift from him with greater enthusiasm than she had the clock he had given her the previous year: “Gee Dick. Guess I am a pretty lucky Irishman!…Best of all was knowing you had remembered.”