Tuesday, June 22, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pat Nixon, Spouse Of Ex-President, Dies At 81 -- Former First Lady Had Lung Cancer


WASHINGTON - Pat Nixon, the uncomplaining silent partner in Richard Nixon's quarter-century of political triumph and disgrace, died of lung cancer today at the Nixon home in Park Ridge, N.J.

She was 81.

Mrs. Nixon had suffered from lung disease for years and was hospitalized in February for emphysema. Kathy O'Connor, Nixon's aide, said the family had known at least since then that Mrs. Nixon had cancer.

In their 53 years of marriage - through the dark years of Watergate, through the pain of his resignation from the presidency - the former Thelma Catherine Ryan was at Nixon's side, never showing in public how much it hurt.

The former president and their daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, were with the former first lady when she died at 5:45 a.m. today. The Nixons' wedding anniversary was yesterday.

"Mrs. Nixon was awake yesterday and knew it was their anniversary," Mrs. O'Connor said. "The girls were there and they looked at anniversary cards and beautiful flowers that had arrived for the celebration. She later lapsed into a coma. Mrs. Nixon was a fighter and a very courageous woman."

The funeral will be Saturday at the former president's library in Yorba Linda, Calif., and visitors may view the coffin on Friday between 5 and 9 p.m. The Rev. Billy Graham, a long-time family friend will officiate at the funeral, and Senate Republican leader Robert Dole will deliver the eulogy.

Mrs. Nixon will be buried on the grounds of the library, the site of Nixon's birth.

President Clinton said he was saddened by Mrs. Nixon's death.

"The American people appreciate the dignity with which she served as first lady," Clinton said.

"Pat" was only a nickname, bestowed by her father because she was born the day before St. Patrick's Day, 1912.

Mrs. Nixon's health had not been good since that Friday morning in 1974 when a helicopter carried them from the White House into exile. A major stroke in 1976 left her with a paralyzed left side.

The former first lady made a painful recovery through exercise and physical therapy. But that first stroke - there was another, milder one, in 1983 - began a series of illnesses.

There were repeated hospitalizations for asthmatic bronchitis, bronchial pneumonia and lung infections. The public didn't know, but she had been a smoker.

The Nixons had two daughters, Julie and Tricia. Julie married David Eisenhower, grandson of the 34th president, and they had three children, Jennie, Alex and Melanie. Tricia married Ed Cox, a lawyer, and they have a son, Christopher Nixon Cox.

Mrs. Nixon, a vivacious woman who met her husband when both were trying out for a part in a play, shunned public activities after they left the White House and returned to their seaside home in San Clemente.

They lived there until 1980 when Mrs. Nixon decided she wanted to be closer to her grandchildren in the East.

Nixon emerged from the shadows and traveled around the world, but his wife didn't.

Mrs. Nixon was at Nixon's side during all his crises: the secret fund that nearly cost him the vice presidential nomination in 1952; the stoning of his limousine in Venezuela in 1958; the bitter defeats in 1960 for president and 1962 for governor of California; the scorn heaped upon him by anti-war protesters in the Vietnam years.

Mrs. Nixon maintained a dignified silence during the days of Watergate, when Nixon was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the attempt to cover up the scandal, when he was denounced before a committee of the Senate and recommended for impeachment by a committee of the House.

And she stood behind her husband in that dramatic hour when Nixon, the only man ever to resign from the nation's highest office, said his emotional farewell to staff and friends in the White House East Room.

Nixon later wrote of that moment:

"She was wearing dark glasses to hide the signs of two sleepless nights of preparations and the tears that Julie said had finally come that morning. I knew how much courage she needed to carry her through the days and nights of preparations for this abrupt departure.

"Now she would not receive any of the praise she deserved. There would be no round of farewell parties by congressional wives, no testimonials, no tributes. She had been a dignified, compassionate first lady. She had given so much to the nation and so much to the world. Now she would have to share my exile. She deserved so much more."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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