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Cal State Houses Cache of Nixonabilia

January 09, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | For The Times

When the decision was announced last month to build the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library next to the little house where he was born, there was a lot of emphasis on what wouldn't be part of the collection.

Documents and tapes from his presidency, for example, were confiscated by the federal government under a post-Watergate law. Although some have since been made public, a legal battle between the former President and the government has twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court and remains unresolved.

Some other materials from Nixon's pre-presidential years, turned over to the government in 1968 for tax purposes on a recommendation from President Lyndon B. Johnson, are stored in a Laguna Niguel branch of the National Archives and are under access restrictions from Nixon himself, according to an April, 1987, paper by Fred Close of the archives branch.

But one of the most colorful collections of Nixon material is maintained by the Cal State Fullerton Oral History Program and will remain at the university after the Nixon library is built. The 200-volume Richard M. Nixon Oral History Project is the only oral history collection on him that is complete and open to the public, according to Dr. Harry Jeffrey, professor of history and director of the project since its inception in 1969.

The collection, which covers Nixon's life from his birth to the time he entered politics in 1946, offers a portrait of him in the words of his former neighbors, schoolmates, friends and relatives.

A young woman who helped with the family's housework when Nixon's mother, Hannah, was ill remembered keeping young Richard and his older brother, Harold, from swimming in the irrigation ditch that ran alongside the house.

"I've been told by good Democrats that we made a mistake by taking such good care of Richard," Mary Elizabeth Rez said in an interview years later.

Nixon's first-grade teacher, Mary George Skidmore, remembered him as "a very quiet, studious boy (who) kept mostly to himself. . . . He was a very solemn child and rarely ever smiled or laughed.

"Every day he wore a freshly starched white shirt with a big black bow tie and knee pants. He always looked like his mother had scrubbed him from head to toe. The funny thing is, I can never remember him ever getting dirty," Mrs. Skidmore said.

Nixon learned to read in the first grade. By the time he finished the year, he had devoured "30 or 40 books, maybe more," his teacher recalled.

By then the Nixons had two more sons: Donald, born in 1915, and Arthur, born in 1918, who died of tuberculosis at age 2.

But Richard was always eager to compete. His brother, Harold, and cousin, Floyd Wildermuth, took advantage of that trait.

"We'd be out in the (lemon) grove and tired, wanting to get some cookies or something," Wildermuth told the oral history interviewer. "We'd often try to get Richard to go run our errands for us. Although he'd be reluctant, we found how we could always get him to do it because he was quite a competitive boy. He was very competitive, in fact, so we would always make a game out of this.

"We would bet him that he couldn't get up to the house and bring those cookies or a bottle of milk or something and get back to us before we could count to 100. He'd take off on the run, we'd sit there and visit until we saw him coming. Then we'd pick up the count somewhere in the 90s--91, 92, 93--and we'd just get him under the barrel at about 97 or 99. He'd get in there all puffing, you know, but he'd always win. That way we'd never have a problem with him the next time we wanted him to run an errand."

The Nixons gave up on their lemon grove in 1922 and moved to nearby Whittier. Before they left, young Nixon confided to a friend, Gerald Shaw, that he planned to be vice president when he grew up.

Nixon expressed a different ambition to his aunt, Jane Milhous Beeson, when he was 12. He had gone to stay at her home in Lindsay in Tulare County so he could take piano lessons from her. "During that time there was a big oil scandal--the Teapot Dome scandal--and the newspapers, of course, were full of it," Mrs. Beeson said. "I remember Richard lying down on the floor, down on his stomach with the newspapers spread out in front of him. . . . He didn't like what he was reading. He said, 'When I grow up, I'm going to be an honest lawyer so things like that can't happen.' "

His aunt's interview was conducted before Nixon's Watergate scandal, as were all but one of the project's interviews.

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