Surrounded by bobbleheads and books, Gregory Cumming, staff historian of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and University of La Verne history professor, displays his many passions.

Surrounded by bobbleheads and books, Gregory Cumming, staff historian of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and University of La Verne history professor, displays his many passions.

by Sydney Ferris
photography by Kim Toth

“Whether you love him or hate him, Richard Nixon is one of the most fascinating people ever,” says Gregory Cumming, University of La Verne alumnus and adjunct history professor. A self-described history nerd who just so happened to play football under esteemed head coach Roland Ortmayer, Cumming graduated from ULV in 1986 with a bachelor of arts degree in United States history. He credits his time at La Verne to getting him where he is in his career today, as supervisory archivist and staff historian of The Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, which is a federal Presidential Library of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Cumming is originally from Northern California, which led to his being a huge San Francisco Giants fan. But it was at Disneyland where he found his love for his field. He says that as a four-year-old boy, the Abraham Lincoln animatronic at Disneyland is what sparked his love for history. He thought the robot was real, became fascinated with it, and, well, the rest is history—literally.

Cumming met his wife Lupe in the ULV Wilson Library. She was a biology major while he was a physical education major who wanted to coach sports. It was renowned ULV History Professor Steven Sayles who influenced not only his change in major, but also the course of his life. Cumming says he switched his major to history after his freshman year when he took a directed study course. Sayles gave him books to read and to write papers on. “We hit it off immediately,” Cumming says. Sayles was more than a professor but a mentor and a best friend as well. “We could sit and talk about history for hours, and it would feel like minutes,” he says. “That’s what La Verne is all about, those personal connections between students and professors.”

Sayles and Cumming were connected from the beginning. He soon was part of the family. He would pop in for Sunday dinners, use their washing machine and even babysit their son Dan. The Sayles family was at Cummings’ wedding, and his children knew the professor and his family. The relationship between the two was so strong that, years later when Cumming had an idea for a book regarding the February 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, he went to his history mentor, who at the time was recovering from open heart surgery.

Hearst, a member of the wealthy and powerful media family, was kidnapped by the radical extremist Symbionese Liberation Army. The SLA wanted to start a guerilla war against the U.S government and began demanding money and resources in exchange for Hearst’s release. Two months after her kidnapping, the SLA sent the FBI a tape saying that Hearst had joined them; then, a few days later, a video tape was released, showing Hearst participating in an SLA bank robbery. Hearst and the SLA were on the run until September 1975 when the FBI caught up to them. Hearst, found guilty of bank robbery, was sentenced to seven years in prison. After serving two years, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence. In her defense, Hearst said that her only two options were either joining the SLA or death.

Cumming’s first memory of the Hearst kidnapping was coming home as a 10-year-old little league baseball player and seeing the Hearst bank robbery on TV. Flash forward 20 years, and his fascination remained. Cumming was reading a book about the kidnapping while waiting for a flight in the airport. He thought the book was great, but that things were missing. Following, he talked to a friend in the FBI and was able to gain access to its archives, where he did primary research on Patty Hearst and the SLA. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic and approached Sayles in regards to co-authoring the book.

Cumming felt this book was going to be Sayles’ last project, which made it that much more meaningful. “The Symbionese Liberation Army and Patricia Hearst, Queen of the Revolution ” was co-authored by the two. Cumming, for his part went to the main FBI building in Washington, D.C. and did primary research. Sayles died in 2018 and was unable to see the finished product, but Cumming followed through with publishing the book and says he completed it just the way Sayles would want it. He presented the finished copy to Sayles’ wife Barbara at the ULV memorial service for her husband. “Barb was always Steve’s inspiration,” Cumming says.

Following his La Verne graduation, Cumming matriculated at the University of California, Riverside and earned, in 1989, a master of arts in Modern United States. He then enlisted in the Army but was also looking for a government job and applied to be the archivist at the then start up Ronald Reagan Library. Sayles wrote him a top-notch letter of recommendation that Cumming says got him the job. He talked to his recruiter and was able to get a medical discharge from the Army due to a knee surgery and then set off for Los Angeles. The Reagan Presidential Library was initially in an old pasta factory near Venice Boulevard. Cumming was part of the team that helped plan, then move the library into its permanent structure in Simi Valley. President Reagan kept an office in the library, and Cumming says he consulted with him numerous times about library resources and introduced his parents to the former president.

After 14 years at the Reagan Library, Cumming was contacted to help the Richard Nixon Library rejoin the National Archives. He says he negotiated with stakeholders to transition the library from private to public, basically redoing the archives to make them more accessible and more balanced in the representation of the former president. The Nixon Library officially rejoined the National Archives in 2007. Cumming also received his Ph.D. in Public History and the 20th Century United States from the University of California, Riverside the same year.

He says his main job is to ensure that the correct materials and resources are available for people to make informed decisions on their own regarding the President’s legacy. He and his colleagues work with groups who are pro-Nixon and anti-Nixon to ensure that no bias is in place. “The more material available, the better,” Cumming says.

Richard Gelm, ULV professor of political science, talks highly of Cumming, saying he is a dynamic professor who knows how to make history interesting for students. Gelm tells a story where one of his classes went to the Nixon Library, and Cumming allowed them to see the exclusive archives that held the Nixon Tapes and rows and rows of classified cabinetry regarding the former president and his administration. “Our students got to experience that because of him,” says Gelm, “He has one foot in academia and one foot in the real historical world.”

A museum-goer imitates Richard Nixon while having her photo taken in front of a mural inside the Richard Nixon Library and Museum.

A museum-goer imitates Richard Nixon while having her photo taken in front of a mural inside the Richard Nixon Library and Museum.

Another perk of Cumming’s leading with his teaching talent at ULV is that students gain internships at the library. Before he graduated from ULV  in 2011 with a bachelor of arts in history, Benjamin Jenkins, now ULV university archivist and associate professor in the history/political sciences department, was one of those students. He describes his time interning at the Nixon Library as “an experience that not every history student gets.” Besides providing Jenkins the internship, Cumming also wrote him letters of recommendation. “He will move heaven and earth to support his students,” says Jenkins, “He has never stopped giving back to La Verne.”

Richard Nixon’s Legacy

Richard Milhous Nixon was president of the United States in one of the most tumultuous times in American history— the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Vietnam War was raging, the Civil Rights Movement was in full effect, political assassinations had scared the world, and American relations with foreign countries were frail. “With Nixon, you get so many great things, but then you get the things you wish didn’t happen,” Cumming says. He says the great things include anti-crime laws, the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act, multiple programs to keep endangered species safe, reducing tensions between the United States and China, nuclear arms control agreements with the U.S.S.R. that helped bring about the end of the Cold War, the passing of the Education Amendments Act, which included Title IX and pulling troops out of Vietnam.

The flip side are funding cutbacks for dozens of healthcare, education and job training programs and inflation soaring to unprecedented levels. And of course, there is Watergate, the scandal that to this day is what people remember when they think about Nixon’s five years and 201 days as president. When those five members of the Committee to Re-Elect the President broke into the Watergate Office Building to bug Democratic offices, they were not aware that they triggered the beginning stages of one of the biggest political scandals in American history, which would ultimately lead to a two-year investigation with Nixon becoming the first ever president to resign from the Oval Office.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library showcases both sides of the President. “It is an important time in American history,” Cumming says. “It is a true rags to riches story about someone who worked his way to the Oval Office. It demonstrates California’s growing importance in the country as a whole, how America changed post World War II and the 1960s—how that time period changed America, and how we exited that time.”

Touring the Nixon Library

Cumming and his National Archives staff have done their job well. Exhibits start with his birthplace, capture his position as vice president and focus intently on his time as president.

A violin, propped against a wall inside Richard Nixon’s childhood home in Yorba Linda, shows the musical talent of the former president who played the violin, piano, accordion, saxophone and clarinet.

A violin, propped against a wall inside Richard Nixon’s childhood home in Yorba Linda, shows the musical talent of the former president who played the violin, piano, accordion, saxophone and clarinet.

The “Boyhood Home” is set apart. Frank Nixon, the president’s father, used a store-bought kit to build the small home where Nixon was born Jan. 9, 1913, the second oldest of five boys. The Nixons lived there until 1922, when they moved to Whittier. Cumming says he often finds himself at the modest home, located in the library’s garden, when the sun is setting.

Nixon’s time at Whittier College and Duke University School of Law is another display, and one where Cumming says he feels he can relate to Nixon. Whittier was not Nixon’s first choice. He was offered a tuition grant at Harvard but chose to remain close to home to take care of his ailing mother and to work at his parents’ combined grocery store and gas station. “I see the more human aspect of Nixon. He isn’t somebody that I can’t relate to. A small town, California kid. He went to Whittier College like I went to La Verne,” Cumming says.

Nixon was on the debate team and debated against the La Verne College team. He also played for the Whittier College football team as an offensive lineman and, according to a 2004 ULV Campus Times article, even cracked a tooth or two during a game against the Leopards. Cumming, himself, says he played for the ULV team as a safety.

In 1946, Nixon transitioned into politics. He served in Congress for four years before winning California’s vacant seat in the U.S Senate by more than half a million votes. He gained prominent attention for being anti-communist and was soon named as General Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in the 1952 Presidential Election. The pair served two terms in the White House. Nixon then faced off against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, which Kennedy won by fewer than 120,000 votes. “Can you imagine Richard Nixon trying to stop the votes in 1960?” Cumming says. “No, that was unheard of. He accepted defeat, maybe not graciously, but he did. He never challenged election results in court. He did what was best for the American people.” In 1968, Nixon was elected President of the United States, defeating Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey by nearly 500,000 votes. One of the first challenges he faced was ending the Vietnam War. In April of 1969, American troops began to withdraw from Vietnam, and by March of 1973, all American troops had left.

The library grounds commemorate the passion of his wife Pat Nixon as an avid gardener who wanted the beauty of the White House to be accessible. Pat began giving tours of the White House Garden in 1973, and The Pat Nixon Gardens were dedicated in 1990. Among the California Formal Garden, Frank Nixon Citrus Grove, a 1912 California Pepper Tree and more than 80 types of roses, is also the final resting place of Pat and Richard Nixon. Their headstones are not too far from the boyhood home, signaling a true full circle of life.

Gregory Cumming’s Family

Ahead of his many accomplishments, Cumming is most proud of his family. His wife Lupe has been a surgical nurse at Los Angeles General Medical Center for more than 25 years, and Cumming considers her the strongest person he knows. He is father to daughter Taylor, who studied economics and graduated from ULV in 2019, and son Jake, who, like his father, studied history but broke the ULV tradition and attended Southern New Hampshire University, graduating in 2022. Jake worked on the Vietnam exhibit in the Library with the Richard Nixon Foundation and is now studying to be a paralegal.

“I may have grown up in the Bay area, but my life really started at La Verne. Everything fell into place. As a kid, Jake would run around outside of Founders Hall,” Cumming says. “We still go to football games. We are a La Verne family through and through. The memories of football games, my daughter going here, meeting my wife and Steve here—I can’t imagine my life going as well as it has if I hadn’t been here.”

The “Shot Down in Vietnam” exhibit inside the Richard Nixon Library and Museum holds 75 artifacts that show the harsh conditions that Prisoners of War endured and includes images that tell the POW stories of the Prisoners of War as well as their homecomings.

The “Shot Down in Vietnam” exhibit inside the Richard Nixon Library and Museum holds 75 artifacts that show the harsh conditions that Prisoners of War endured and includes images that tell the POW stories of the Prisoners of War as well as their homecomings.

What Could Have Been: The ULV Nixon Institute

The University of La Verne and the Richard Nixon Library have more in common than Greg Cumming, ULV senior adjunct history professor and staff historian at the Nixon Library. In the early 1980s, The Richard Nixon Foundation was looking for a location for the presidential library. Nixon’s alma mater Whittier College was their first choice, but due to his controversial term in office, the Whittier wanted nothing to do with it. One of their next options was ULV. Instead of the full library, the University decided to focus on international affairs, and the basic concept of the Richard Milhous Nixon Institute was born. ULV was one of about 20 schools that wanted to use Nixon’s name for a school of foreign policy. The basic concept of the Richard Milhous Nixon Institute was soon born.

According to “The University of La Verne: A Centennial History: 1891-1991,” authored by Herbert Hogan, the basic concept of this institute was created by Dr. Robert W. Heiny and Robert Rivera. These two men had just joined the University Development Office and separately came up with the same concept of bringing this institute to La Verne to improve the status and financial resources of the University. When the two men shared their ideas at a staff luncheon, they were shocked to learn that they were both thinking of the same project. The purpose of the institute was to bring “together into one location eminent scholars and practitioners to examine ways to enhance world relations and peace through international policies.” The institute would have addressed themes such as world hunger, world peace, American-Chinese relationships and other diplomatic areas. President Nixon would have been the founding chairman on the Institute’s board of trustees. He even agreed to teach a course each year.

The institute proposal sparked debate on campus and in the local community. Those who supported it believed that the Institute would raise the academic and scholarly level of La Verne. The Institute would also generate financial support for the University, which was not extremely financially healthy in the early 1980s. While the Associated Student Forum voted against the institute 6-5, a Campus Times newspaper poll from 1983 showed that 64% of the student body supported the Institute. The faculty voted 53-45 in favor as well. But those who were against it made it well known. Before the decisive ULV Board of Trustees meeting vote, one Board member referred to the institute as “a-whoring after money.” Another member made an 18-minute speech against the institute. Many alumni and community members wrote letters, most protesting against the proposal. Today, there are more than 100 of these letters in the University archives, says Benjamin Jenkins, ULV archivist and associate professor in the history/political sciences department.

At the March 5, 1983, ULV Board of Trustees meeting, three amendments were proposed. The first two easily passed —”Prevent the use of any funds from the University for the project” and “In the program of studies, answers and methods directed toward solving world affairs and problems shall focus on alternatives to the use of military power.” But the third amendment—”Proposed that the name of the institute be ‘United States Presidents Institute of World Affairs,’ Richard M. Nixon, Founder and First Chairman”—did not pass, with the Board of Trustees voting against it 21-16. This ended the vision of the Richard Milhous Nixon Institute to ever be placed at the University of La Verne.

It is easy to conclude that the University’s then close association with the Church of the Brethren, a historic peace church, is what was responsible for the Board’s ultimate veto of the institute, but it is quite the opposite, writes Hogan. Among those who supported the institute were pastors from both the La Verne Church of the Brethren and Pomona Church of the Brethren, a prominent ULV Church of the Brethren professor of religion, plus many Church of the Brethren professors and staff in campus leadership positions, affirms Jenkins. Yet, in retrospect, the institute ultimately failed because it was such a divisive and controversial issue, writes Hogan.

While the Richard Milhous Nixon Institute never came to fruition, the Nixon Library found its home in Yorba Linda, California, adjacent to the Nixon family home. In the present day, it is an enlightening research institution and museum that is open to the public for those who want to learn more about the 37th President from his early life—including as a student at Whittier College—all the way to his time in the White House.

A bedroom inside the home of Richard Nixon captures the childhood of the former president. The birthplace home is located on the grounds of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda and serves as a museum.

A bedroom inside the home of Richard Nixon captures the childhood of the former president. The birthplace home is located on the grounds of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda and serves as a museum.

Sydney Ferris is a junior communications major at the University of La Verne.

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Kim Toth is a junior photography major at the University of La Verne and photography editor of the Winter 2024 La Verne Magazine.