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Remembering President Ford

Mich. hometown braces for crowds

December 29, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. — The procession of tourists and history buffs stretched for blocks along Union Avenue SE on Thursday as people flocked to the childhood home of Gerald R. Ford.

Some came to pose for pictures in front of an oversized American flag on the wide, wooden porch.

Dozens of others pleaded with the current owners for a tour of the house -- hoping to see memorabilia that includes congressional bumper stickers from the 1970s, eyeglasses with the 1976 presidential campaign logo on them and a Christmas card the former president sent to Tim England and Rob Kent just a few weeks ago.

"The phone and the doorbell have been ringing off the hook since we found out he'd died," said England, 46. He and Kent bought and restored the home in the 1990s, after it had been vacant for two decades.

"What can you do but welcome them in?" England said. "Everyone's feeling the same thing right now: to come together, to remember one of our own and what he's done for all of us."

With funeral events and public services beginning in California today, residents in Grand Rapids said their New Year's celebration would be tempered by Ford's somber homecoming Tuesday.

But there was also a strange giddiness Thursday at the prospect of an onslaught of mourners swarming "Furniture City." The industry has been slumping in this town where men once carved out their fortunes by stealing their neighbors' lumber, and Ford's death means an unexpected financial boon.

Officials estimated the number of visitors would top more than a quarter-million, more than doubling the town's population.

"That's just the early guess, and we're thinking it's going to be far more," said Laurie Forte, chief operating officer of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. "This doesn't happen here. In Los Angeles or Chicago or Washington, D.C., this might not be such a big deal. But we're a small town. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for us."

Many of the area's hotels are beginning to fill up, and florists are enlisting extra employees to create red, white and blue arrangements. But finding enough blooms to meet the demand has been difficult.

"With the Rose Parade, the Rose Bowl and Valentine's Day coming up, you try finding a red flower. We only have 550 red carnations in all of Grand Rapids," said Bing Goei, president of Eastern Floral & Gifts. "I'm calling suppliers in South America, California, everywhere, and telling them to get us more flowers. I don't care what it takes. We need them here -- now."

Hundreds of Eagle Scouts, who will line the streets as Ford's casket is taken to the Gerald R. Ford Museum, have been flocking to local headquarters to be fitted for new uniforms.

"We have some guys who became Eagle Scouts when they were teenagers, and are now in their 50s and 60s and don't fit into their old pants," said Michael Sulgrove, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Council of the Boy Scouts of America. "Sales are definitely up."

Marty Allen, a family friend and chairman emeritus of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, said the former president would have preferred a more modest service, open only to family and close friends.

But Ford knew that his funeral would bring crowds to Grand Rapids, Allen said, and that the nation would want to take part in the proceedings.

"So he stayed very hands-on with regard to planning many of the arrangements, to make this turn out the best it could" for Michigan and the public at large, Allen said. "The plans for this have been in the works for decades."

This week, museum staff replaced the festive holiday decorations in the tiny marble lobby with American flags and a dignified portrait of Ford. By Thursday, as many as 10,000 people had signed the condolence books, according to local news reports.

"Thank you for being a nice guy," wrote one visitor. Another penned: "Thank you for defying the critics."

Rachel Lee approached the table and scanned through the entries in the black-covered book. After a few moments, she grasped her pen and squeezed her message onto one empty line: "Thank you for your service."

"It's a pretty small space to convey big thoughts," said Lee, 29, a local real estate developer. "I'll have to come back tomorrow and write more."

The crowds came in the daytime, waiting in long lines and shivering as a bitter wind cut through their wool coats and thick scarves. Others came in the middle of the night, as a waxing moon rose over the museum where the former president will be interred.

There were tattooed young people in baggy pants, and nuns dressed in habits and carrying rosaries. A pair of Vietnam veterans placed a bouquet of carnations outside the museum, next to dozens of candles filling the air with the scents of vanilla and lavender.

Norma Swanwick brought her 4-year-old grandson, Derek, to give him a chance to experience history. As the pair left, she posed him in front of the sign at the museum's entrance and took his picture.

"I lived through the time of Watergate," said Swanwick, 64, a retired history teacher from Centerville, Mich. "I grieved when he lost the election. And I grieved when he died. Someday, my grandson will value the importance of being here to say goodbye."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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