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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Nixon Came A-Calling--and Once Disappeared--at His Yorba Linda House

April 01, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

In the 12 years that Vince Ellingson lived in the Yorba Linda home in which Richard Nixon was born, Nixon visited three times: during his campaign for the presidency in 1968, during the Watergate investigation and after he left office.

Ellingson--director of maintenance, operations, transportation and grounds for the Yorba Linda Elementary School District--remembers them all vividly: "More than anything else, living in that house made me realize the importance of preserving history."

The Ellingson family has lived considerably longer than the Nixon family in the home, which occupies a site where construction will begin this summer on the Nixon library.

Vince came first, living in the house and maintaining it from 1967 to 1979. Since then, his sister, Maxine Wood, his older brother, Ronald, and finally his younger brother, Harold--who lives there with his family now--have followed Vince. Nixon lived in the house from 1913 to 1922.

All of Nixon's visits--along with a lot of other action--took place during Vince's residency.

He's acutely aware of that--and of the ways in which the visits touched his life. Vince Ellingson is a stocky, earnest, thoughtful man who is still putting the Nixon experience into perspective.

"It had an especially profound effect on my kids," he said, strolling the grounds--once a lemon grove--around the Nixon birthplace. "We came down here from Montana, and none of us had what you would call outgoing personalities. But this forced my kids to come out. It gave them an immediate identity at school and with their friends. That boosted their self-esteem--and it showed up in all sorts of ways."

Mark Ellingson (now an Oregon banker) was 6, his sister, Marcy, (who works for a Phoenix importer) was 3, and Greg (a carpet installer in Riverside) was an infant the first time Nixon appeared at their front door.

"It was during his first campaign for President," Ellingson recalled. "We found out he was coming about a week ahead of time, when the Secret Service showed up and searched every cranny of this house. They even emptied the woodbin outside."

The Ellingsons were told to stay in the house and greet Nixon at the front door. He arrived with an entourage of several hundred local officials, reporters and hangers-on in a whirlwind of limousines.

"When we answered the door, Mr. Nixon, his wife, Pat, and our congressman, Charles Wiggins, were standing there. The people behind them were pressing in so closely, they almost pushed the Nixons into our house. Mr. Nixon turned to them and said, 'This is just between the Ellingsons and us, so please step back.' Then he and his wife came in and we showed them through the house."

Ellingson remembers Nixon commenting about the absence of plumbing when he lived there and inquiring about the irrigation ditch--long since paved over--where he "got in trouble for swimming" when he was very young.

"I had lots of preconceived ideas about him," Ellingson said, "and I was very nervous. He made a real effort to settle us down, and I appreciated that."

The Nixon home was built by the former President's father, Frank, in 1912--a year before Richard was born in the tiny living room--and passed through a number of private hands before it was bought as a school site by the Yorba Linda Elementary School District. School district employees lived in the house for several decades, maintaining it in exchange for reduced rent.

When it became available in 1967, Ellingson--then a groundskeeper making $505 a month--offered to pay $80 a month in rent and to perform maintenance work. He got the house.

Maintenance was a serious problem, because the house had deteriorated badly. In fact, it might have been torn down except for the intercession of a determined band of local citizens who formed the Nixon Birthplace Foundation shortly after Nixon was elected President in 1968. Several members of this group--including the former President's sister-in-law, Clara Jane Nixon, and a distant cousin named Hurless Barton--were relatives, but for the most part the group was a political and philosophical mix dedicated to preserving history.

The group worked tirelessly to collect the money to buy the home, somehow riding out the Watergate years. In 1979, the foundation bought the house for $125,000, then set about raising more money to restore it and find and preserve the furnishings that were in the house when Richard Nixon lived there.

Ellingson remembers especially the efforts of Barton, how deceased: "He used to visit weekly to see what I needed to keep the house together. His dedication has been a model for me."

Age, weather and lack of money weren't the only problems Ellingson faced in preserving the home. Souvenir-seekers were destructive and pervasive. Although the home was identified only by a modest sign at the street and could be reached only by navigating a rutted, tortuous gravel driveway, Ellingson says:

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