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May 22, 1988|SHERRY ANGEL

Names and faces in the news come and go. Often, the people who help shape the quality of our lives are almost--but not quite--forgotten once their tasks are completed and they move on. Sometimes, their names come up and we wonder where they are and what they are doing.


The gallery of photographs in her Corona del Mar home recalls another life, nearly two decades ago, in which she was one of the most prominent women in national politics, one of President Richard M. Nixon's most loyal appointees and an outspoken advocate of social programs for minorities. Today, at 70, Patricia Reilly Hitt lives quite happily in near obscurity, but Nixon still calls her on her birthday and she still has the quickness, directness and high energy that made her a force to be reckoned with in Washington, D.C.

Hitt was national co-chairman of Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign--the first woman to hold such a post--then was appointed assistant secretary for community and field services in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. She was the highest-ranking woman in the first Nixon Administration.

As supervisor of HEW's 10 offices across the country, she shifted authority from Washington to the regional level--"because the local people knew better how to use the money"--and introduced a series of social programs for Mexican-Americans, whose needs she felt were being ignored.

One reason she had clout in Washington, she says, is that "everyone knew I had been closely associated with the Nixon family for many years, so obviously I had access."

Hitt graduated from Whittier Union High School several years behind Nixon, and her father, John B. Reilly, was among the first to encourage Nixon to run for Congress in 1946. Hitt recalls the young Nixon whose first congressional campaign became a family project: "He had a brilliant mind, a great love of country--and charisma. There was no halfway in people's reactions to him. They'd either bleed and die for him or they couldn't stand him."

Hitt, who has lived in Orange County since the late '40s, worked for Nixon's reelection in 1948 and joined his senatorial campaign in 1950. But her involvement in politics was limited to the local level until 1960, when she became a member of the Republican National Committee.

She wasn't prepared for the reception she received on the East Coast. "The minute I was identified with Orange County, I was seen as a right-wing freak. I was determined to show as far as I could that the county wasn't all extreme right-wingers."

She also wanted her progress to help other women enter politics. "Unofficially, I assumed an advocacy role for women," she says.

As part of that effort, she mobilized the wives of Republican governors and U.S. senators and congressman through a group called the "Flying Squadron," which became the core of her "Women for Nixon" campaign in 1968.

Hitt was hard-working and aggressive--but never ambitious, she says.

By 1973, she felt she had done enough in politics. She resigned from HEW, not because of Watergate, she insists, but because "I was homesick."

"Now I'm glad I left when I did because I would have been out defending him (Nixon). I was convinced he hadn't been involved in Watergate."

The day Nixon returned to San Clemente after resigning in 1974, Hitt met his plane in El Toro because she was sure no one else would. But thousands of supporters had turned out, and she couldn't get near him. "I stood with tears streaming down my face," she says. "A lot of people still believed in him."

Although she relishes the opportunity to talk politics and reminisce about her Washington days, Hitt is content to be on the sidelines today. She takes long and frequent trips with husband, Robert, and the five grandchildren who live nearby occupy much of her time at home. She's also on call to baby-sit for children at a local shelter for battered wives, and she's active in Designing Women, a support group for the Laguna Beach Art Institute.

She says she hasn't been tempted to return to politics.

"I contribute; sometimes I endorse. But right now I want to be free. Besides, I can't do anything half-hearted."

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