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Remembering President Ford

Quiet desert burg gets ready to pay respects

Preparations by the military and Secret Service spark curiosity -- and a false alarm.

December 29, 2006|Jonathan Abrams and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

PALM DESERT — As they prepared to act as hosts during the first official memorial for Gerald R. Ford, residents of Palm Desert took their cue Thursday from the unassuming style of the 38th president -- stepping aside as the military and Secret Service swept in to handle the funeral procession.

A trickle of curious and reverential onlookers gathered Thursday on the fringes of sun-washed St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, watching the military Guard of Honor rehearse. The church is where the Ford family will gather for a private prayer service today. A crush of TV satellite trucks filled two nearby residential streets.

By late afternoon, traffic slowed to a crawl in front of the church as Riverside County sheriff's deputies tried to keep the cars moving.

Jan Taylor-Booth of Palm Springs said she hoped crowds wouldn't overwhelm the usually tranquil desert town. Most locals would give the Ford family time to grieve in private, she said.

"It's a very low-key area; you really don't want to see a lot of high exposure," Taylor-Booth said. "When a man is president, a lot of people are going to come out, but there needs to be some kind of privacy for the family and the city." Ford died Tuesday at age 93.

Executing a plan that has been in place for two decades, nearly 500 military officials converged on the Palm Desert area to begin rehearsing the procession and securing the area for the public viewing, which will begin about 4 p.m. at St. Margaret's and last until about 8 a.m. Saturday.

Marines from the nearby Twentynine Palms base are the official hosts for the area's events, and every facet of the agenda has been scripted in minute detail with considerable input from the Ford family, said John M. Spann, a Defense Department spokesman.

After leaving the White House, Ford and his wife, Betty, retired to the desert community of Rancho Mirage in 1977, where he was a frequent fixture on the golf course. The couple immersed themselves in raising money for local charities and institutions -- most notably the Betty Ford Center, which she opened after struggling with her own substance abuse problems.

When they were not at their other home in Colorado, the couple frequently attended St. Margaret's, a beige church of modern design with tall windows looking out on the mountains ringing the community.

Shortly after Ford's casket arrives, about midday, the family will gather for the private prayer service. After that, the family will hold a private visitation for friends and guests.

For security, officials have closed off a section of Highway 74 near the church until 11 a.m. Saturday.

Those who wish to attend the repose must take shuttle buses from the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells and will not be permitted to bring any bags or personal belongings to the church.

The Rev. Robert Certain, a close friend of the Fords who will preside over the family prayer service, said he had turned away dozens of would-be volunteers.

"We're trying to stay out of the way," Certain said. "This is a national event, and the military and Secret Service is handling everything."

After the public repose, Ford's casket will be taken to Palm Springs International Airport at 9:45 a.m. Saturday for a brief ceremony before being flown to Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, D.C.

Ford will be honored at a state funeral Saturday evening at the Capitol, where his body will lie in state in the Rotunda on Sunday and Monday. Funerals will also be held at the National Cathedral in Washington on Tuesday and on Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., Ford's hometown. He will be laid to rest on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.

Rehearsals in the early afternoon caused considerable confusion when sleek, black sedans leading a hearse with a flag-draped casket circled St. Margaret's and were met by a military band and the Guard of Honor. A number of passersby jumped out of their cars thinking the real ceremonies had begun.

Among them was 62-year-old Gary Hanson, who spent the last two decades living 1 1/2 miles from Ford -- always hoping he would catch a glimpse of him.

The closest he got was hanging the ornate wallpaper in the private dining room of the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, where Ford spent much of his time.

Jay Trubee, owner of Jillian's restaurant, fondly recalled that Ford would stop in several times a month to order Lake Superior whitefish.

He said with a chuckle that no matter how hard he tried, he could rarely persuade the former president to order anything other than the whitefish -- even after Trubee gave him the recipe to try it at home.

"He said in order to get the real thing, you have to come to the source," Trubee said.

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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