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In Whittier’s Library, a Politician Keeps Company With a Poet

Richard Nixon as a member of Whittier College's football teamAs a student, Richard M. Nixon was a member of Whittier College’s football team. He’s wearing No. 23. “He was a great debater,” the college’s president says, “but a terrible athlete.”

Whittier, Calif. — I did not come here meaning to look for mementos of Richard Milhous Nixon—or, for that matter, of John Greenleaf Whittier. I spent the summer of my 15th year learning about government by watching the Watergate hearings—John Dean, John Ehrlichman, Samuel Dash, Sam Ervin—and the next two decades listening to endless discussions about the aftermath. That seemed like enough Nixon for one lifetime. As for Whittier, well, let’s just say that tastes have changed since the 19th century, when his rhyming lines and classical allusions made him one of the country’s best-loved poets.

But the City of Whittier, settled by Quakers about 1880, is named for the poet, who was a prominent Quaker and a famous abolitionist. And when Quakers founded a college here, in 1887, they named it, too, for the poet. Fast forward to yesterday, when the college’s president, Sharon D. Herzberger, was showing me the town’s main shopping street, Greenleaf Avenue, and stopped to point out the building where Nixon, an alumnus of the college, had his first law office. Then, crossing the campus on the way to lunch, she detoured to point out a simple fountain that is a memorial to Nixon—and told a fine story about why it’s currently dry.

The Nixon fountainWhen Nixon was a student in the early 1930s, Ms. Herzberger said, a literary society called the Franklins existed on campus, and its members were largely men from well-off families. Nixon, a Quaker whose family was poor, got together with a friend to found a more egalitarian society, the Orthogonians, beginning a long rivalry. Now, Ms. Herzberger told me, every time the Nixon fountain is turned on, someone—quite possibly someone associated with the Franklins—pours bubble bath into it, gumming up the machinery. So mostly the fountain stays dry.

Whatever his faults as president, Nixon is remembered here as a smart, Bust of Nixonengaging, enthusiastic student leader who, Ms. Herzberger said, took  pride in the college’s welcoming students of all backgrounds at a time when that was far from the norm. A particularly memorable figure from Nixon’s era was Wallace “Chief” Newman, a Native American who was  coach of the football team. Nixon was “a great debater, but a terrible athlete,” as Ms. Herzberger put it, but he was nonetheless on the team. You can watch him praise Coach Newman in a 1983 interview during which Nixon says of football and the coach: “I was never any good at it, but I learned a lot sitting by him on the bench.”

Without intending to, the college’s library has become something of a repository for Nixon memorabilia, even though his Presidential Library is only about 15 miles away, in Yorba Linda, his hometown. Nixon gave a number of Nixon hats and masksitems from his years as vice-president to the college, and other people have donated a variety of papers and artifacts—campaign buttons, rubber Nixon masks, even a Spiro T. Agnew clock. They do take a person back.

And what a surprise they would be to John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker of strong conviction. Much of the Nixon collection is on the same floor of the library as the college’s large collection of material about Quakers generally and Whittier in particular. Joanna Perez, who oversees the special collections, showed off Whittier’s chair and writing desk, on top of which is a case holding his stuffedWhittier's desk pet squirrel, Friday—who is, by coincidence, facing across the room to a display case with Nixon pennants, plates, even a “Nixon Now” hat.

Times change, of course. Poems fall out of fashion, and so do customs that may once have seemed charming—for decades Washington & Lee University displayed the skeleton of Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, before burying it beside the chapel. And reputations are endlessly revisited. It’s probably still a little soon for those of who grew up with Nixon to fairly weigh his accomplishments in civil rights, environmental protection, and foreign policy against the way he practiced politics. But it’s worth knowing that his college remembers his years here with respect.

It’s also worth setting aside modern sensibilities and reading a lovely poem John Greenleaf Whittier sent the new-born town in 1880. In it he bequeaths his name:

No child have I to bear it on;
Be thou its keeper; let it take
From gifts well used and duty done
New beauty for thy sake.

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