Rose Mary Woods, the devoted secretary to President Richard Nixon who said she inadvertently erased part of a crucial Watergate tape, has died. She was 87.
Woods died Saturday night at a nursing home in Alliance, Roger Ruzek, owner of a funeral home in Sebring, said Sunday. He did not know the cause of death.
The 18½-minute gap in the tape of a June 20, 1972, conversation between Richard Nixon and chief of staff H.R. Haldeman was critical to the question of what Nixon knew about the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex three days earlier — and when he knew it.
Woods, who moved to northeastern Ohio after leaving the disgraced president's staff in 1976, never talked much about her years with the only American president to resign the office.
But Nixon considered her a member of the family. He wrote in his memoirs that it was Woods he asked to inform first lady Pat Nixon and his daughters in 1974 that he had decided to resign on Aug. 9.
"My decision was irrevocable, and I asked her to suggest that we not talk about it anymore when I went over for dinner," Nixon said.
When the time came for the family to privately say goodbye to Nixon before he climbed aboard the helicopter headed for Air Force One, Woods stood by with Mrs. Nixon, daughters Tricia and Julie, and their husbands.
"Rose ... is as close to us as family," Nixon said.
Woods, the granddaughter of an Irish stowaway, was born in Sebring on Dec. 26, 1917, and was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family.
She worked as a pottery company secretary in Sebring, then moved to Washington to become a typist on Capitol Hill, where she caught the eye of a rising Republican star, Congressman Richard Nixon of California.
Nixon biographer Jonathan Aitken said the two hit it off immediately. Nixon, elected to the Senate in 1950, hired Woods as his secretary.
"She was intelligent, literate, clamlike in her discretion. Technically superb, she possessed the high-speed skills of shorthand and typing necessary to keep up with her boss's often frantic and always demanding schedule," Aitken wrote.
"One of the reasons why Woods struck up such a good rapport with her boss was that their characters were similar. Disciplined in her emotions yet passionate in her convictions, Woods was intuitive, protective and obsessive about privacy."
Nixon defended his loyal employee when fingers pointed at Woods, who had spent weeks transcribing subpoenaed White House tapes.
"I know I did not do it," Nixon said. "And I completely believe Rose when she says that she did not do it."
She denied she caused the full 18½-minute gap, testifying later that she inadvertently erased four or five minutes. The phone rang while she was transcribing the tape, she said, causing her to accidentally hit the record button. A picture in which she demonstrated her action — stretching one foot forward while reaching back to get the phone — became one of the most famous images of the era.
A panel of experts set up in the 1970s by federal judge John Sirica, who presided over the Watergate criminal trials, concluded that the erasures were done in at least five — and perhaps as many as nine — separate and contiguous segments. The panel never figured out what was erased.
Who erased the rest of the tape? No one knows.
Alexander Haig, who succeeded Haldeman as chief of staff, blamed the gap on "sinister forces." Experts later examined the tape and found as many as nine deliberate erasures. They said Woods could not have done the whole thing.
In an interview on the 25th anniversary of the 1972 break-in, Woods said she was rarely asked about Watergate anymore.
"Every once in a while I get notes and things from some of the people who were with us, but not much," she said.
"Everybody gets sort of separated."