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Pat Nixon said only goal was to be "the wife of a president'

Patricia Ryan Nixon, the poised, gracious, oft-called "perfect political wife" through the roller-coaster rises and disgraceful fall of former President Richard Nixon's turbulent career, died Tuesday at their home in Park Ridge, N.J. She was 81.

Mrs. Nixon, a heavy smoker although she never permitted herself to be seen smoking in public, died of lung cancer. She had suffered from lung disease for several years and was hospitalized last February for emphysema when the cancer was discovered.

Nixon and their daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, were at her bedside when she died at 5:45 a.m. EDT, according to a statement issued by Nixon's New Jersey office.

For three decades Pat Nixon was always there, the loyal and sometimes obviously suffering wife standing stoically behind her husband as he pursued a career that took him to the unprecedented heights _ and depths _ of public life. The former first lady cried only twice in public _ when her husband lost his 1960 bid for the presidency to John F. Kennedy and when he made his farewell speech on Aug. 9, 1974, after the Watergate scandal forced him to resign.

She once said her only goal was to "go down in history as the wife of a president."

Her reclusive years after leaving the White House have been described as "Garboesque," with her resorting to wigs and disguises to go shopping. She suffered a major stroke in 1976 after reading Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's The Final Days about her husband's Watergate decline and fall, and another stroke in 1983. She had been in frail health for years.

"She cherishes the privacy of her retirement years," daughter Julie wrote in her loving 1986 biography, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, which strove to establish her mother's accomplishments as the most widely traveled first lady in history with trips to 80 nations, her laudable addition of antiques to the White House, and her promotion of volunteerism.

One of Mrs. Nixon's last public appearances was in Yorba Linda, Calif., on July 19, 1990, for the dedication of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, and at a dinner that night for 1,600 friends at Los Angeles' Century Plaza Hotel. The library, where her memorial services will be conducted Saturday, includes a Pat Nixon room and grounds planted with the red-black Pat Nixon Rose developed by a French company in 1972 when she was first lady.

"She is a true, unsung hero of the Nixon administration, and our country owes her a great debt of gratitude," former President Ronald Reagan said at the dedication. He echoed that appraisal in a statement Tuesday.

"She was a woman of great strength and generous spirit. In time of trial and turmoil, she shared that strength and spirit not just with her family, but with the nation," said California Gov. Pete Wilson, who will deliver one of her eulogies Saturday. "She never sought public life, but she met its obligations with dignity and unfaltering good cheer."

Former President Bush has called her "a gracious first lady who ranks among the most admired women of postwar America."

Thelma Catherine Ryan was born March 16, 1912, in the mining town of Ely, Nev.

Her father, William Ryan, was "100 percent Irish"; he nicknamed her "Pat" because she was born on the eve of St. Patrick's Day. The nickname stuck so well that, disliking "Thelma," she later had her name changed to "Patricia."

The Ryans had come west in search of gold and Ryan became a miner. When their baby girl was 1 year old, the family moved to Artesia, Calif., a small town about 18 miles from Los Angeles, where they ran a 10{-acre truck farm.

Young Pat was only 13 when her mother died, leaving her to cook and care for her father and two half brothers. Five years later, her father died.

On June 21, 1940, Richard and Patricia Nixon were married in a Quaker service in Riverside, Calif. They set up housekeeping in an apartment over a garage and Pat Nixon kept on with a teaching job.

Then came World War II, and Richard Nixon obtained a Navy commission. Mrs. Nixon followed her husband from post to post around the country, working as a bank teller in Ottumwa, Iowa, and finally taking a government job in San Francisco in 1943.

Richard Nixon returned from the war with political ambitions, and the couple's carefully tended nest egg _ which Mrs. Nixon hoped would buy a house _ helped finance his first political campaign.

The 1946 campaign was successful, and the future president won a seat in Congress just a few months after their first daughter, Patricia (Tricia) Nixon was born. The Nixons moved to Washington, settling in a cramped duplex where their second child, Julie, was born.

Nixon served two terms as a member of the House of Representatives and in 1950 was elected to the Senate.

Her good will and disposition earned general admiration. Gallup Polls named her among the nation's most admired women in 1957, '68, '69, '70 and '71; Homemakers Forum selected her as the "Nation's Ideal Housewife" in 1957.

After Nixon resigned from the presidency in August 1974, the couple moved into a palatial estate in San Clemente, Calif., but in 1979 they returned to New York to be closer to their family.