Your Village: Why is there an elementary school named after Nixon in Iowa?

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Richard M. Nixon Elementary School, 200 Nixon Dr, Hiawatha — CRCSD

There’s a Nixon Elementary in Hiawatha?????? Why would they name a school after Nixon?? —GM, Coralville, via the Your Village feature on LV’s homepage.

Timing, they say, is everything. Whether or not that’s true, it goes a long way in explaining why an elementary school in Hiawatha is named for Richard M. Nixon.

The school opened its doors in 1970, and the name was fixed the year before. Nixon was elected president in November 1968. When his name was hung on the building, he still had that new president smell. That, plus Nixon’s personal connection to Iowa (more on this below), would have been irresistible to a school district that likes to name its schools after presidents.

There’s only one other school named for Nixon in the United States, but unlike Richard M. Nixon Elementary School in Hiawatha, it doesn’t use his full name. Nixon Elementary in Roxbury Township, New Jersey, is also a relic of his first term.

At the time, Nixon’s impressively wide-ranging criminal nature wasn’t as obvious as it was after Watergate. Nixon was capable of crimes both great (a lot people think of Watergate as just the June 17, 1972 bungled burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, but it encompassed a whole constellation of serious crimes) and small (during Watergate, investigators turned up evidence Nixon cheated on his taxes). But all of that was still in the future when the schools were named.

When Nixon was running for president in 1968, his campaign marketed him as “the new Nixon.” Sure, his successful campaigns for the House of Representatives in 1946 and the Senate in 1950 had shown Nixon to be a shameless and flagrant liar, but now he was a new Nixon. And yes, once he was in the Senate, Nixon attached himself to red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy the way a remora attaches itself to a shark, but McCarthy was long dead by 1968 and people were willing to believe Nixon was a new Nixon. And of course, Eisenhower had almost dropped him as a running mate in 1952 when a secret slush fund Nixon had was discovered by the press, but ethically dubious things like that were the work of the old Nixon. (Ike never liked Nixon, but selected him for vice president to appease the McCarthyite wing of the Republican Party.) And that tense, sweaty public persona Nixon had during his unsuccessful run for president in 1960 against JFK? Well, that part of the old Nixon was obviously still around.

There needed to be a new Nixon in 1968, because in 1962 the old one announced he was done with politics after losing the race for governor of California.

“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference,” he said during a bitter 15-minute rant at a news conference following his loss.

Six years later, many of those reporters Nixon claimed kicked him around believed in the new Nixon. So did a little over 43 percent of American voters, and that was enough for Nixon to win the three-way race for president in 1968.

So, both schools are products of the years between the debut of the new Nixon and the revelations of Watergate.

Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, and a month later, President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon for any crimes he may have committed. Nixon had picked Ford to be vice president almost a year earlier, when his elected vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned. Agnew resigned because he was busy working out a plea deal on charges of tax fraud. No one pardoned Agnew, and he ended up paying a $10,000 fine and serving three years probation.

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In retirement and safe from prosecution, Nixon eventually moved to New Jersey. In 1989, he visited Nixon Elementary in Roxbury Township. He never visited Hiawatha’s Nixon Elementary even though he was in Iowa the year after it opened.

In 1971, President Nixon flew to Iowa to speak at the dedication ceremony for Rathbun Lake in Appanoose County, which was created by the Army Corps of Engineers. Although he skipped Hiawatha on that trip, Nixon did stop in Ottumwa, where he had briefly lived in the 1940s.

During World War II, Nixon joined the Navy and his first assignment was at the Naval Air Station in Ottumwa (it closed in 1947, and the site is now the city’s airport). In August 1942, a 29-year-old Nixon arrived in Ottumwa with his wife of two years, Pat. They lived there until May 1943, when Lt. Nixon shipped out to the South Pacific, where he served as a logistics officer.

Nixon didn’t see much action in the Pacific, but he did make enough money playing poker with fellow officers to open his own law office after the war.

President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast, Feb. 25, 1972. — Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

When Nixon died in 1994, the Des Moines Register sent a reporter to Ottumwa to gather local memories of him. For the most part, people said the sort of vague and nice things one says about the recently deceased, but Loree Roach, a retired journalist who knew the Nixons in Ottumwa, gave a more clear-eyed account of him.

“I don’t know how to say this without sounding unkind, but actually he didn’t leave much of an impression,” she said. “Nixon apparently was withdrawn and moody and not very outgoing. I don’t mean that to sound like there was anything wrong with him. But he was just not friendly.”

If the old Nixon didn’t impress Roach, the new Nixon wowed John Wulu, an educator in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. In 1968, Wulu decided to rename the school he founded in Monrovia the Richard M. Nixon Institute. Wulu wrote Nixon asking for permission to use his name. The president replied, thanking Wulu for the honor. According to Wulu’s autobiography, Nixon also added “he had no financial support to give the institute.”

The renaming took place the same year Richard M. Nixon Elementary opened in Hiawatha. It remains the only school outside of Iowa or New Jersey named for Nixon, old or new.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 288.