Dick Nixons Orange County

A Guided Tour

There's no mention of that event in the Yorba Linda Packing House, which has been renovated into a tastefully designed, open-air office building, complete with what appears to be the original angled ceiling. But pictures of old-time Yorba Linda hang on the walls along with a couple of Nixon family portraits. It's not exactly a monument to history, but it's something, an indication that once upon a time, this place was something other than a home for chiropractors' offices and a 24-Hour Fitness gym.

Living in Whittier, Nixon's parents daily sent him back into Orange County to attend Fullerton Union High School for his first two years; the Nixons apparently felt that Dick's older brother, Harold, had been corrupted by life in Whittier. Fullerton Union still stands; Nixon began to shine there as a public speaker and as a boy with a remarkable capacity for punishment on the football field. But while the campus is one of the most ornate in the county, there's no mention of Nixon's enrollment to the casual passerby. Another famous student goes unmentioned as well—Walter Johnson, the Big Train, maybe the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

Across the street is Fullerton College, which Patricia Ryan—later Pat Nixon—attended.

North County is full of unmarked Nixon sites. At age 5, Nixon attended an American Legion parade in Placentia shortly after World War I ended. He remembered seeing a hanged effigy of the Kaiser and thinking it was the real thing. Buena Park was the site of a Nixon campaign rally in his first bid for president in 1960; Anaheim Stadium frequently hosted Nixon in the '70s. He was a big Angels fan, and somewhere there's a photo of him getting doused by Bobby Grich after the Angels won their first division title in 1979.

But these are all scattered moments. Without the biographers and newspapers, you'd never know Nixon was there.

Nixon spent his teenage and young-adult years in Whittier, where he graduated from high school and college, got his first law job, worked for the city, and launched his political career. This city provided the foundation upon which Nixon was to build a tower to the presidency. But today, what may be most remarkable about Whittier's relationship to that past is the almost complete absence of Richard Nixon sightings.

When Frank moved his family to Whittier, he opened a three-pump service station on the southeast corner of what is now Whittier Boulevard and Santa Gertrudes. At the time, the station was a tiny island surrounded by a sea of citrus. Today, all traces of agriculture are gone. Banks and stores and auto dealerships line the boulevard as far as you can see. The service station is still there, now boarded-up and highlighted by for-sale signs. One of the many ironies in the Nixon story is that Frank, who also owned a small general store next door to the service station, detested chain stores. Across the street today is the Whitwood Shopping Center, whose proud occupants include Old Navy, Sears, Carl's Jr. and Mervyn's.

The house in which Nixon spent his formative years is also standing, just down the street from the corner lot. Its bright Victorian fa├žade has been preserved by the current occupant—an antique store. The only mention of its historical significance is found on crude photocopies of a newspaper article stuffed into an envelope taped to the door. The article includes a short synopsis on the house and a caricature of Nixon appearing to roll his baggy eyes at a block of text trumpeting the fact that "Something very exciting is happening here! Consignments!"

Across the street is the original Quaker church in East Whittier—still standing, still a church—where the Nixons attended services three times per week.

Both Whittier College and the Whittier Museum keep extensive collections of Nixon letters, papers and books. The museum is also working on an exhibit that will duplicate Nixon's first law office.

But the rest of the city seems to have forgotten Nixon—or isn't sure what to make of him. Denzil Heaney, who runs the museum, says opinion remains polarized, 25 years after Nixon's resignation. "You say his name and you just don't know what kind of reaction you're going to get," he says. "The nicest person in the world can turn and walk away, while someone mean will brighten up."

That polarization began long before Watergate. In the '60s, a group of anti-Nixon residents, still smarting from his destruction of Jerry Voorhis in his first campaign and the repeated scandals of his early political career, defeated an effort to name a street after him. In June 1994, Whittier officials honored Nixon's death that spring by naming after him a small access road near City Hall. Residents blocked any grander effort; it seems no one wanted the bother of changing addresses.

But the most obvious sign of the weight of Nixon's memory on this town is the fact that it doesn't have Nixon's presidential library. The city tried three times, with Whittier College leading the first attempt shortly after Nixon's election as president in 1968. The city came up with a brochure and promotional campaign, detailed architectural renderings were prepared, and there was talk of creating a trail that would wind through Whittier, stopping at key places in Nixon's life. But then came Watergate, and any talk of a presidential library suddenly seemed a crude joke.

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