In his book Being Nixon, Evan Thomas describes Richard Nixon's father, Frank, as "blustery, bullying" and as having worked low-paying jobs, including as a factory hand and an oil roustabout. Eventually his father started a gas station and grocery store on the edge of the town of Whittier, in southern California. Richard was his second son, born in 1913. The first son, Harold, was born in 1909. A third followed in 1914 and a fourth came in 1918.
Their mother, Hannah, was a Quaker whom Richard was to often describe as a saint. Writes Thomas:
She spoke in a gentle voice but refrained from hugging or using expressions of endearment. True to her Quaker faith she looked to an "inner light" and disliked showy religion. She said her evening prayers in a closet. Nixon feared his father's temper, but he was more frightened of his mother's look.
The mother's family, named Milhous, disapproved of Richard Nixon's father, who had never graduated from elementary school and was semi-illiterate. Thomas writes that Richard may have felt the first sting of snobbery within his own family." He writes that both parents were "explosive persons." The father exploded outward, the mother inward. For days "nobody could talk to her." When Richard Nixon became a husband and father he "would not abide conflict in his own home," and doing face-to-face business outside the family he would always avoid emotional confrontation.
Hanging above Richard's bed was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a gift from his maternal grandmother. He was an obedient, serious boy always trying to please. From age fifteen he arose "every morning at four to drive into the vegetable markets in Los Angles to buy fresh produce for the family grocery before heading off to school."
In high school, Nixon was religiously devout, filled with a sense of duty and a passion to succeed. He lacked an instinct for rebellion. Instead, he was a joiner. He went out for football and ended up cheering the team loudly from the bench. Thomas describes him as worshipping the coach, who "hated losing" and "disdained quitters."
Nixon had been schooled in politics by his father, a Republican who was for "the little guy" – a politics not uncommon among struggling small business people.
Richard ran for student body president and lost. He brought home Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence people and suggested that his family read it together.
Nixon's hard work and diligence paid off. He graduated third in his class at High School, and he won a full scholarship to Duke University.
At Duke he was again a joiner, and he involved himself in campus politics. According to Thomas he was an "anti-New Dealer, anti-FDR Republican." This was during the early years of the Great Depression. Students from more affluent families looked down on him and nicknamed him "Gloomy Gus."
Nixon graduated in 1937 and returned to California to practice law. He met Thelma Ryan. She disliked the name Thelma and became known as "Pat." She too was a conservative from a family of modest means. She had worked as a typist and as a retail clerk to get herself through Fullerton Junior College and then the University of Southern California, where she majored in merchandising.
A determined man, Nixon's courtship included appearing unannounced at her door, being ignored driving her to dates with other men. His persistence paid off. They married in June 1940, she having turned 28 in March and he 27 two months before.
In December 1941, war came. As a birthright Quaker he had the option of claiming an exemption from the draft, or he could have claimed a deferment because he was working in government service – in Washington DC for the Office of Price Administration. Instead, in August 1942, Nixon joined the US Navy as a junior officer. He departed from his mother's values not only by going to war but also by learning to curse – perhaps like a sailor – more joining, which would surprise people many years later when they heard him talk on White House tapes.