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As Nixon Turns 75, a Town Remembers

January 09, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | For The Times

Seventy-five years ago today, Yorba Linda lemon grower and handyman Frank Nixon ran to the home of neighbor Ella Furnas and asked her to stay with his laboring wife, Hannah, until the doctor came.

The expectant father was "awfully nervous," even though this was the couple's second child, Mrs. Furnas recalled years later for historians from the Oral History Program at Cal State Fullerton. Mrs. Furnas had two daughters of her own, but she was nervous too, she admitted in the 1971 interview.

"I was very much frightened and feared he (the doctor) wouldn't make it in time, but he did manage to get there," Mrs. Furnas said.

Soon afterward, the doctor handed newborn Richard Milhous Nixon to Mrs. Furnas while he dealt with the infant's mother.

"I had never been in such a predicament," Mrs. Furnas said about caring for the newborn, "so I just didn't know what to do. . . . I was awfully glad when it was all over, and I was allowed to go home."

The future President's impromptu midwife visited frequently over the days that followed, checking up on the new baby. Soon afterward, however, Mrs. Furnas moved away and lost touch with the Nixons.

The town of Yorba Linda, on the other hand, has kept up an on-again, off-again relationship with its native son over the years, a relationship that is definitely back on these days as the city prepares what was once Frank Nixon's lemon grove as the site of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.

The city hasn't always asserted its claim to Nixon's fame--or the shame that came with his resignation. The man's popularity on the national level has been bouncing up and down for four decades, and Yorba Linda has tended to go along with the prevailing view in the nation.

Sure, there are a few stubborn Yorba Linda folks who never stopped giving directions to their homes beginning with, "You take the Richard Nixon Freeway. . . ." (The California Assembly bestowed the name on a small stretch of Imperial Highway in Yorba Linda after Nixon was elected President, only to strip the road of its title after the Watergate scandal.)

But if they advertise their hometown at all, residents are more likely to use the city's unofficial, apolitical license plate frame slogan, "Yorba Linda: Land of Gracious Living."

Nixon's stock was up in the '50s, when he was vice president, and in 1969, when he was sworn in to the nation's highest office. Then, Yorba Lindans put up plaques and monuments commemorating the historic event to which Mrs. Furnas was a somewhat reluctant witness.

When his fortunes plunged, after his "you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore" speech in 1962--and even more so in 1974, when he became the only American president to be driven from office--the proud citizens of Yorba Linda weren't always quick to jump in and challenge when someone said, "Nixon? Isn't he from Whittier?"

For example, a brochure of the city's historical sites compiled several years ago mentions the town's first apartment building and its first garage, among other sites. But mention of the Nixon birthplace is conspicuously absent.

(There is, however, no hard evidence that Woody Allen had that brochure in mind when he wrote "Sleeper." Allen used a black-and-white clip of a Nixon speech in the movie. "Some of us have a theory that he might once have been a president of the United States, but that he did something horrendous, so that all records, everything was wiped out about him," says a scientist of the future to a fresh-from-the-freezer Woody as they watched the clip together. "Yes, that's right," Allen replies.)

A county history book published after Nixon's vice presidential years, but before his presidency, describes him only as the cousin of writer Jessamyn West, also a Yorba Linda native.

During Nixon's first term in the White House, local citizens proudly erected a monument--made with stone samples from each of the 50 states--on Yorba Linda Boulevard in front of the little frame house where he was born. They got the telephone company to donate a stand for the guest register (it looks remarkably like one of those walk-up pay phone booths, without the phone).

Every morning a volunteer would stop by the house to put fresh paper in the register; every evening he or she would collect the day's signatures and take them indoors for safekeeping.

But after Nixon resigned and retreated to his oceanfront estate in San Clemente, the paper in the birthplace guest register ran out and no one bothered to replace it. The red, white and blue paint on the stand faded and wasn't touched up.

Of course, there's a lot of sprucing up going on around the place now, according to Yorba Linda Mayor Roland Bigonger, who was also a founding member of the local Nixon Birthplace Foundation and one of the volunteers who once kept the guest register current.

"There are some things we really should have taken care of a long time ago," Bigonger says. "We need to replace that guest register; it looks really bad."

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