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Remembering President Ford

A quiet, personal farewell

The public pays its respects in Palm Desert after simple rites for Gerald Ford, who never stood on ceremony.

December 30, 2006|Maria L. La Ganga and Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writers

PALM DESERT, CALIF. — The first tribute to Gerald R. Ford was as quiet and simple as his life beyond the White House -- a private family prayer service Friday in an austere desert church, followed by a somber line of friends, dignitaries and just plain Californians paying their final respects in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains.

As the nation began nearly a week of official mourning for its 38th president, there were no 21-gun salutes or rifle volleys here in the Coachella Valley, no taps, no flyovers to disturb the stillness, no missing-man formation, no riderless horses, no ceremonial caissons.

Instead, the usually bustling neighborhood -- home to St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, where the Fords have worshiped for nearly three decades -- was eerily silent for most of the day, its streets blocked off and environs patrolled by Secret Service agents, Riverside County sheriff's deputies, local police and bomb-sniffing dogs.

There will likely be more pomp and circumstance when the presidential plane bearing Ford's body touches down outside Washington today, when statesmen gather Tuesday at the National Cathedral for the president's official funeral, and when the Michigan stalwart is flown home for burial Wednesday at his Grand Rapids presidential museum.

But Friday was as calm as Ford's presidency was tumultuous. The Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the controversial pardon of disgraced former President Nixon all seemed like ancient history here in the warm, bright desert that drew the Fords west when they left the White House in 1977.

At 12:30 p.m., the somber motorcade inched up empty State Highway 74, more quietly than seemed possible for nearly a score of shiny black limousines and SUVs; a hearse with fluttering American flags and a tiny presidential seal; a vast motorcycle escort; and a smattering of police cruisers.

A moment later, a Boeing 747 from the presidential fleet arced noiselessly across the cloudless sky, heading for Palm Springs International Airport. Today that plane will fly east with the body of the president and his family.

First lady escorted

Then former First Lady Betty Ford, looking tiny and frail at 88, was escorted to the church portico on the arm of a uniformed military officer, followed by her four children and their families. It was her first public appearance since her husband's death Tuesday at their Rancho Mirage home.

They all looked on as "Hail to the Chief" and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" were played by a reverent Marine Corps band filled with musicians born long after Ford's term of office.

"This is something I will definitely tell my kids about," said Cpl. Raymond Garcia, 20, a trumpeter.

Uniformed pallbearers carefully eased the flag-draped coffin from the hearse and headed up the stairs, followed by a sailor carrying the presidential flag in honor of Ford's Navy service.

Then Betty Ford turned and followed her husband's casket into St. Margaret's for the final time.

"With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother Gerald for burial," the Rev. Robert Certain intoned as the family gathered around the casket in the church's narthex. "Let us pray with confidence to God, the giver of life, that he will raise him to perfection in the company of the saints."

The prayer ended. The church doors closed. And outside on the sun-warmed asphalt, eight big buses and a smaller van waited for nearly an hour on State Highway 74 while the family paid their last respects.

Only then were friends and dignitaries -- including former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Ambassador Lee Annenberg, former California Gov. Pete Wilson and former Rep. Jack Kemp -- allowed entrance to the church, where Ford's casket rested on an altar.

Miles away, at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, thousands of Californians had queued up for a shuttle to St. Margaret's and a chance to say their own goodbyes.

Jay Magness and his son Aaron left their Irvine home at 3 a.m. to be among the first. They shouldn't have hurried; the buses wouldn't begin to leave for nearly a dozen hours after their arrival, and for a while they were the entire line.

"I'm kind of nervous," said Aaron Magness, 18, a University of Oklahoma student with his own eye on the White House.

"I went to Reagan's [repose] so I know what to expect a little bit now. It's just to pay our respects to Ford, because he didn't get noticed a lot when he was president. But now he has a legacy that is secured."

Estella Taylor, 42, of Palm Springs was another early arrival at the shuttle stop. But she came late to her knowledge of Ford's import.

Late as in just last week, when she visited the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda and learned of Ford's place in history.

"No matter how high a position you rise to, before that you are just a person," said Taylor. "It seemed like Ford never changed from just being that regular person. To me he was a unique individual."

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