Mary G. Skidmore

Interviewed by Greg Brolin   

This is a slightly edited transcription of an interview conducted for the Oral History Program, sponsored by California State University, Fullerton. The reader should be aware that an oral history document portrays information as recalled by the interviewee. Because of the spontaneous nature of this kind of document, it may contain statements and impressions which are not factual.

Scholars are welcome to utilize short excerpts from any of the transcriptions without obtaining permission as long as proper credit is given to the interviewee, the interviewer, and the University. Scholars must, however, obtain permission from California State University, Fullerton before making more extensive use of the transcription and related materials. None of these materials may be duplicated or reproduced by any party without permission from the Oral History Program, California State University, Fullerton, California, 92634.

Copyright © 1977

The Oral History Program

California State University, Fullerton



Richard Nixon Project

Richard Nixon's School Days

O.H. 952




Greg Brolin



Richard Nixon Project



SUBJECT: Richard Nixon's School Days

B: This is an interview for the California State College, Fullerton Richard Nixon Oral History Project. Greg Brolin is interviewing Mrs. Mary G. Skidmore.

First of all, Mrs. Skidmore, I'd like to thank you for inviting me into your home today to talk to you. Would you please give us a little bit of your own background, a brief biography of yourself?

S: I'd be happy to. In 1918 I was in UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] finishing my training for a teacher. I wanted to apply for a position so that I could get one before all the other five hundred got them, so I started out early. Through the office at college I was told of this vacancy in Placentia, but the board of trustees was in Yorba Linda. I had a friend drive me out to Yorba Linda and I met the trustees. They said they had filled the position, but Yorba Linda had an opening and I should contact So-and-so in Yorba Linda, which I did. That's how I happened to go to Yorba Linda. I was accepted, and I went there the following September of 1918.

It was September of 1919 that Richard Milhous Nixon entered the first grade in the elementary school of Yorba Linda, California. This was the first school day ever for young Richard, as there was no kindergarten. It was in the first grade, the second year of teaching for his teacher, who at that time was myself, Miss Mary M. George. We will always call him Richard because one day his mother, Mrs. Hannah Nixon, came to school for something, and during the conversation she said, "By the way, Miss George, please call my son Richard and never Dick. I [1] named him Richard," I never forgot that. So Richard he has always been, to all of us. He was a very quiet, studious boy and kept mostly to himself. At first, of course, he couldn't read; but he was one of those rare individuals born with knowledge. He had only to be exposed or shown, and he never forgot. So when he learned to read I'll never know. He was only one of a group of children in that class who learned very rapidly. He was a very solemn child and rarely ever smiled or laughed. I have no recollection of him playing with others in the playground, which undoubtedly he did. Probably this was due to his going home for lunch each day. During physical education time, when we all played together for our daily twenty minute bit, he joined in most heartily. He absorbed knowledge of any kind like a blotter. I always believed that, educationally, we should feed a child's mind as fast and as much as he can take. In that year I think he read no less than thirty or forty books, maybe more, besides doing all of his other work. I would get outside books at second grade level for him. If I remember correctly, he skipped a grade, so to speak, and I recommended him for the third grade for the following September, 1920.

My recollection was that he was never ill and always looked the picture of health, the way he is today. In those days the Nixons were very poor, and like other youngsters, in mild weather Richard always came barefoot. 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 never remember of him ever getting dirty.

Yorba Linda was founded as a branch of Whittier, Quaker in religion. Most of the people were Quakers at that time; so was Mrs. Nixon. She was a very refined, dear person and most cooperative. She and her husband had purchased a lemon grove surrounding their home. Not far away stood a Sunkist packing house whose manager was Mr. Stephen E. Skidmore. Not knowing much about the growing of lemons, Mr. Nixon soon appealed to Mr. Skidmore for help and advice, which he received but would not heed. Mr. Nixon could be a very stubborn man. The result was that later he lost his grove. Mrs. Nixon went to work in the packing house, packing oranges for Mr. Skidmore in order to help the family budget. At the time of his marriage Mr. Nixon adopted the Quaker faith, or so I've been told. Across the street from the original schoolhouse was the Quaker church. Folks attended that or nothing at all, unless they went out of town. The schoolhouse later burned down. [2]

As a teacher, my first year was there in the school building, and then, as it does today, enrollment increased, so the school trustees rented a small building up the street in back of the schoolhouse. That is where Richard, his class, and I were housed. In my first year, the number of teachers was four, with Mrs. Mabel Paine as principal and teacher of the seventh and eighth grades. The second year there were five teachers. At that time Yorba Linda had one cafe open one month, closed the next two or three, and there were no paved streets. Teachers were not allowed to board nor room with any family that had a child or children in the school. Neither were they allowed to dance. There were no picture theaters. Those who made these rules, whether they were Quakers or not--and I'm quite sure they were not—made up for all of this by playing cards. During 1918 and 1919, in the spring, they struck oil in Yorba Linda, which brought an influx of people who mixed like oil and water with the former residents.

To this teacher, the privilege of teaching has always been an eternal joy, and the year of 1919-1920 brought a bountiful harvest, a harvest that brought forth in later years a great man, Richard Milhous Nixon, destined to lead a great nation, the United States of America. One more fact must be noted: Miss George and Mr. Skidmore met, and later were married to live happily ever after.

B: Well, that answers most of my questions. I have just a few that I'd like clarified.

S: Gladly, if I can answer them.

B: Were there any special activities that you had in your school, like what Mr. Jeffrey refers to as "speaking contests" or "poem readings"?

S: No, there weren't any that I know of. Remember, this was only the first grade.

B: What type of text did you use?

S: The Little Red Hen. (laughter) That doesn't mean anything to you, but it would to a lot of people. It was the state series at that time.

B: The three R's?

S: Absolutely the three R's. Nothing else. That's why children learned so much in such a short space of time.

B: You say Richard Nixon grasped this? [3]

S: Oh, yes. You know, he just never had to work for knowledge at all. He seemed to be born with it. He was told something and he never forgot. He has a photographic mind, I think. He must have had because he never forgets names or faces today. There was no discipline problem whatever. As a teacher I never recognized the word "discipline". I never have had any trouble.

B:In your classroom what did you have in the way of visual aids? Was it just a chalkboard?

S:It was just blackboard work and chart work, charts I'd made; and the readers.

B:You mentioned that Mr. Nixon was a very solemn individual and didn't say a whole lot. Did he mix well with the other children, or was he a loaner, as he has been labeled in later years?

S:Well, he was kind of by himself. I taught in groups, you know. That's the way I teach. He would be busy with his group while I was working with other groups, and vice versa. Even for the things that we did all together, he mixed all right when he knew he should. (laughter) Of course, you see, going to school produces with some children a magic quality; I don't know what it is, but they aren't always the same in school as they are at home, or very rarely, especially when they start the first year at school. You know, Quakers are quite strict, and he was strictly brought up to mind and to do this and to do that. He understood what he was at school for. He was there to learn and not to play around. That's what he did. It never entered his mind to think of doing otherwise.

B:Many psychologists say that in the early stages of life you can tell whether or not a person is going to be a dynamic person. Did Dick Nixon display any leadership qualities?

S:No. He did not; I think he was too young, except for his ability to learn so rapidly.

B:You mentioned that Frank Nixon could be a very stubborn man. Did you have a chance to meet with him?

S:No, I never met him.

B:Oh? What about Hannah?

S:I did meet Mr. Nixon Senior in 1954 when I was a special [4] guest of Richard's when Mr. Richard Nixon was running for Congress. :E talked with Mrs. Nixon and renewed my acquaintance with her again, after all those years. We were seated in an automobile. Mr. [Frank] Nixon sat in the front seat at the time, and was very, very ill; I don't think he even knew where he was. I'll never forget that day. To the truck was a ramp and Richard was on the truck talking. He told about his father, how hard his father was on them, how stubborn he was, and hard to get along with sometimes. I was so surprised to hear him say that.

B:You mentioned that Mr. Skidmore had told him about his lemon grove, how he should go about whatever he was doing.

S:Yes, to save it.

B:Was this Mr. Skidmore related to the man you married?

S:He was the man I married six years later.

B: I just wanted to clarify that. Why didn't Frank Nixon follow your husband's advice? What was it that was so . . .

S: I guess because he was Mr. Nixon. My husband dealt with oranges, although he knew all citrus fruits: grapefruit, lemons and all. He knew what this place needed, and I've heard my husband sometimes tell that it needed certain fertilizers and foods. I guess Mr. Frank Nixon thought that maybe they would grow without all that. He didn't do anything to help the trees. Mr. Nixon, Sr. didn't know anything about farming and had no background. I don't know anything about them before they came to Yorba Linda.

B: What about Hannah Nixon?

S:She was a wonderful person. Just a wonderful person in every way.'

B: Did you see her many times during those years?

S: Not many, no. She would come to school occasionally if the need arose, but she was busy working and she had those children and all and her husband to take care of. And then, you see, she was packing, and that took many hours a day, so we didn't see her too often. But when we did, she was so sweet. You always knew that she was right there with you and behind you, because of the work she would do with the youngsters at home and with Richard.

B: Did it seem as though Richard displayed many of the qualities [5] his mother had, or was he more like his father?

S: Oh, I didn't know them well enough. I can't say, except that I've always felt that he was more like his mother. He must have been more like his motherin most ways, except for that show of determination "in spite of."

B: What type of church activity was there in the Yorba Linda area during that time?

S: I don't know. I didn't go to the Quaker church. I never went to church there. I was in Los Angeles every weekend. Like I said, I had to even get special permission from the trustees to take the streetcar, which ran in those days, into Los Angeles where I lived. I had to get a special permit to go home every Friday afternoon. I wasn't even allowed to be seen talking to a man on the street. You can't imagine how narrow they were. It was just terrible. I knew from my training that I had to stick it out two years because of the recommendations.

I loved to dance, and we'd go to Brea and Placentia and all of the little towns around. One young man picked up all of us gals, and when we would arrive at wherever, the other fellows would be there. And then we would go home the same way. (laughter) When I met Mr. Skidmore and we started dating, I said, "I can't have anything to do with you here in Yorba Linda. You can come home to my house in Los Angeles, but I can't have anything to do with you here." And he said, "You act so frightened. What's the matter?" And I said, "Well, I'm not supposed to have anything to do with anybody. None of us teachers are." So he said, "Oh, well, we can fix that. You walk out to the edge of town at such-and-such a time and I'll come driving by and pick you up." So that's how we kept our dates, because going home it didn't matter as it was late at night and dark. But they were very, very strict, and I've always felt that it wasn't the Quakers, you see, for they were not the trustees. I don't know. Just narrow-minded people. But that was the Gospel truth.

B: You may have already said this, but it slipped my mind. Where were you staying all this time that you were teaching? Was it in Los Angeles and you made this big trip?

S: Oh, my, no! Like I stated, I had to get permission to go home on Fridays. Now, we stayed where the trustees put us. The first year was in the backyard of a big house or a place where a family lived, and they had a little house where three of us bached and got our own meals and [6] lunches and all. That's why I didn't notice the cafe like I did the second year, because during the first year someone built a rooming house in town, so the four of us teachers took four front rooms upstairs the second year. We were each by ourselves then, together and yet independent, you see. And I got a little electric plate and when the cafe closed, I'd get a can of soup and eat one hot thing. That's the way we lived.

B: This was in Yorba Linda.

S:Yes, Yorba Linda, Sunday night through Friday. Then I would take the streetcar home, returning Sunday

B:What did the town of Yorba Linda offer at that time?


B:Absolutely nothing?

S: Absolutely nothing! We'd do crazy things. We teachers were just youngsters out of school, and we would dress up crazy and go out on the boulevard and walk so the traffic would see us, just for some excitement! Cars would stop and we'd run. Oh, it was just awful! (laughter) We didn't even play games. I don't remember having any games there to play. We had quite a time getting through from Sunday night to Friday.

B: What type of shops or stores were there in Yorba Linda?

S:Just a grocery store. They had two streets, each one block in length, if I remember correctly. They just had little shops like bakery, plumber, library, et cetera. But people really went to Fullerton and to other surrounding towns and Whittier to do the shopping. For a long time I went down on the streetcar every Sunday night, and it was interesting when these Quakers would get on the streetcar and meet another Quaker on it. They'd always kiss, you know, and they kissed on each cheek like the French people do. After a while, Mr. Skidmore started coming in to Los Angeles to my house and would take me out every Sunday night.

B:You mentioned the strictness of Yorba Linda at this time. Were you aware of any other blue laws, in other words, things that were forbidden at that time.

S: I don't know if Yorba Linda had blue laws as such, these [7] laws were do's and don't for teachers. We went on picnics— private parties in homes—et cetera, and had many good times but they seemed not to want teachers to participate in public, or to even be seen. I thought that everything was just pointed toward us. That's the way I always felt. A schoolteacher! It was good training, very good training. We were under the eyes of the trustees, so I do not know what others could or could not do. We had to go to school and be there at eight o'clock, and we could not leave until four. And many a time the principal would come in and I'd be sound asleep on my desk, and she'd wake me up. You take day after day after day, you can't find work enough around to do all those hours. I got a good sleep, then I'd go home and get ready to go out and dance.

So that it won't appear that this teacher thought only of sleep and dancing, may she say that when the county superintendent called on her to "observe" he invited her to lecture on the beginning reading program at the County Institute in Orange, California, spring 1920.

B:What was the major economic basis of the Yorba Linda area? Was it citrus?

S:It was citrus farming. Also the man who introduced the avocado—I can't think of his name—to Southern California brought it up from Mexico and started his avocado grove that first year. We had his little girl in school, and we were invited out there one time. People were very, very hospitable this way; at the end of the year we would have two and three invitations at night for dinner. Everybody thought they had to entertain the teachers and have them to dinner, and we'd just nearly go crazy. We would make two and three appointments an evening, you know, as we could, just explaining it to all of them. They always ended up by playing cards. Personally, I never liked cards and I didn't know one from the other, but I'd sit down and watch, clutching my cards in terror. Someone would put a card down, and I'd see someone following suit, so if I had a like card I'd put it down too. I had no idea what I was doing.

At the very last card party . . . We had been invited to dance and the fellows said they would come and pick us up at ten o'clock. I had resigned my position by then and I really didn't care what I did, because they couldn't hurt me. I had finished my two years and had another position in Upland, California. We told the people when we first received this invitation to the card party that we would be very happy to come for a certain length [8] of time. It wasn't for dinner, it was just for the party and refreshments. But about ten o'clock we would have to leave. At ten o'clock we heard a horn honking, so we jumped up to leave and said that it was our appointment. They said, "Oh, you can't leave until you have refreshments." And we had to sit down and eat our refreshments. Then we left and went over to a little town—I've forgotten which one—with our dancing friends to a public dance. We had our own little group so it was private as far as we were concerned. The hostess of the card party sent her son out to follow us to see where we went and what we were doing. And I can remember him just as though it were last night, peeking over this high partition that separated the dance floor from the front door. So when he was satisfied, he went home and told everybody where we were. Of course nothing happened, because I had already resigned and had my new position, only no one spoke to us again before we left town.

They were strange people. There were really three factions. There were the Quakers, 'who are very fine, very wonderful people. I can't say enough for them in any way. I don't know about their narrowness at all. They were much more narrow then than they are today, I know that. There was another faction that wasn't Quaker, and they seemed to me to be the narrow ones who foisted all the repression on us teachers so that we couldn't relate normally with anyone. There was a young man whom I had met. One day I saw him on the street and stood talking for about an hour. And the next day, I was visited by the clerk of the trustees. "Now you did this, this, and that, Miss George. Yesterday we saw you talking to a man. Now you can't do that. We can't have you doing that anymore," And I'd say, "All right, I'm sorry, I didn't know." It was quite a deal. I had lots of good times though. There were so many people . . . For instance, there were the fruit people who had groves, wonderful people who lived there and had dealings with the packing house. Those folks would have dances in their homes. My principal was married and she and her husband would pick us gals up and take us to these different houses, and then Mr. Skidmore would be there among others. We'd have a wonderful evening. We'd do this several nights a week, every week. So we had our good times.

B: Could you tell a Quaker apart from someone else in town by his dress or his speech?

S: No, I don't think so, unless on Sunday. B: Did he wear his original garb? [9]

S: Only on, Sundays. I don't know, there was just something about them.

B: But not as in Whittier, where they had the wide-rimmed hats and the long black . . . They did wear those on Sundays?

S:Yes, these people did too. You see, I wasn't there on Sunday. I would be on the way down there. The only time I ever saw them was when they'd get on the streetcar and greet each other as "Brother" this or that, and kiss each other on each cheek. (laughter)

B: Was there anything that Mr. Nixon did that ever set him apart from his other classmates? Something that made him special or outstanding, or that you most remember him for?

S:No. No, I don't know why I remember him so vividly. I've often tried to analyze it myself. Why did I remember him so well? I always had remembered that class; also I had their class picture. When he began to become prominent in politics. I was not surprised. I wouldn't have been surprised if any one of a group of ten of them had become U.S. President. Yoneko Dobashi was one of them she was a Japanese girl. There were several that I understand Richard has kept his friendships with, and one boy in particular became the president of the Associated Underwriters of America. I don't know whether he died or not, but Paul Herbert was his name. One day I was out at Phelan; we have a little cabin there. That's just below Wrightwood, you know. My husband had gone over to see a certain man who had retired and gone out there to live. He was in talking with the man and I was out with a friend, and I said, "That's a beautiful home across the street. Who lives there?" And she said, "The Herberts." I said, "By chance they couldn't have a son, Paul?" And she said, "Yes," and she looked at her watch and she said, "Right now Mr. and Mrs. Herbert are landing or probably are already in Chicago with Paul Herbert for the weekend." Isn't that amazing? This lady said, "Richard Nixon never goes or comes anywhere near Chicago that he doesn't at least call Herbert." Ever since they were little kids, they've been great friends.

B: Did you know the names of any of the other children who might have played with Richard?

S: Donald Bridges. In the same class?

B: Yes. [10]

S: And then Paul Herbert, and of course Yoneko Dobashi, and an adult, Mrs. Pickering who was spoken of in Mr. Jeffrey's letter. Was it two years ago when they had his homecoming? Something like that. She must be up in her eighties. I got on the bus to speak to all of them; I had hunted them up. They didn't know about me being there and I was sitting way up in the gallery. When the thing was over I made a beeline and just jumped over everybody to get down to the stage as fast as I could to see if I could catch any of them. Mrs. Dorn told me that she had been Mr. Nixon's secretary for many years. And she said, "Well, dear, they're right on the bus right out there in the dark. Go out there." I found them and tapped on the window, and Yoneko saw me and she rushed down. I had a friend that had taken me there, fortunately, so I didn't have to be bothered with my car. I got on the bus and I rode with them, and she followed in her car. I had a chance to talk to Mrs. Pickering, Yoneko, and a number of them that were on the bus. It was quite a thrill for me. They drove to the Disneyland Hotel where they had parked their cars.

Mrs. Pickering and her husband had a son, Chauncey, who was in the fourth grade when I first went down there in 1919, and the second year I was there. He was a very smart boy. They had a lake about a mile out of town, and there were kids that chided him because he couldn't swim. So one day he took his bike and went out all by himself after school. I guess he couldn't stand that teasing any longer, so he went in and was drowned. And it was a very bright moonlit night when the people came and aroused everyone in the town to go out and look for him. I'11 never forget as long as I live walking around that lake and looking in the bright, moonlit water, with everybody looking and hoping. They found him in four feet of water, poor kid. He was the only son they had. They had those twins I showed you the picture of, the one I took in 1954. I don't know what happened to the other twin.

But I just touched with them here and there all along the way, just touched now and then with some of them. I'm going to write to Yoneko, but I never did know her married name until I got this letter. I'll check at Yorba Linda first and see if she isn't there and see if I can contact her.

B: I think you've covered just about everything that I wanted to ask. Is there anything that I haven't asked that you'd like to add to the tape? [11]

S:I can't think of anything.

B: Well, I thank you very much, again come over and talk to you. You've been a real big help.

S: I hope I have been of some help. It doesn't seem like I have been. (laughter)

B: Thank you.


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