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THE NATION | Remembering President Ford

Thousands stand in line to say goodbye

At the public viewing, Americans share their recollections of a leader, an 'honest man' and a Wolverine.

January 01, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For Patrick Hicks, it was a teachable moment that he would share with his social studies class in Grosse Pointe, Mich.

For Chris Berkley, it was an opportunity to honor a former president who had gone to grade school with his grandfather.

For Jeff Myers, a fellow alumnus of the University of Michigan, it was a way to show respect for a former Wolverine.

They -- and thousands of other citizens -- honored the memory of Gerald R. Ford on Sunday, streaming into the Capitol to pay tribute to the former president as his flag-draped coffin lay in state for the first of two full days of public viewing in the cavernous Rotunda.

Ford died last week at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at age 93, the longest-living former president.

A state funeral service to be attended by President Bush and other dignitaries is planned for Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral. After that, the body of the 38th president will be flown to Michigan for interment Wednesday on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.

With some wearing the maize and blue of the University of Michigan, where Ford played on national champion football teams in the 1930s, a steady stream of mourners filed into the Capitol over nine hours Sunday.

They included parents seeking to give their children a history lesson, Michiganders paying their respects to an esteemed native son and tourists in town for the holidays.

They debated Ford's place in history, his unlikely rise to the Oval Office in 1974 and his controversial pardon of Richard M. Nixon.

Their memories included stories of chance meetings with the former president and of family members who knew him.

James Babcock, a Michigan native who moved to the Washington area 15 years ago, said his father, the mayor of a small town in western Michigan, came to know Ford through local Republican politics in the 1950s, when Ford was in Congress.

Babcock remembered being in the University of Michigan's Crisler Arena when Ford launched his 1976 presidential bid and was heralded by the marching band from his alma mater. Ford would lose that election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Greg Williams, an Energy Department employee, said Ford inspired in him a lifelong interest in presidential memorabilia. He was sporting buttons from the 1976 campaign, including one that read "Don't Settle for Peanuts -- Elect Ford," a reference to the Carter family peanut business.

"President Ford was the very first president I ever saw in person," said Williams, recalling a 1975 visit Ford made to Florida where Williams lived as a youngster.

Williams said he thought it was too simple to blame Ford's loss to Carter on his pardon of Nixon.

"I think it was the six years of Nixon. It was the fact that the economy was in stagflation," he said. "The American people saw in Ford an honest man, a man of integrity, and I think that is why people are here today."

Ford was eulogized Saturday night by his former chief of staff, Vice President Dick Cheney, in an address that touched on his early years in Congress and his 58-year marriage to his wife, Betty.

Cheney "was very close to President Ford. It was more than just a political relationship -- the respect he had for him as a man and as a human being, the same thing with Mrs. Ford," said Bob Wells, a Navy captain and a special advisor to Cheney who was among those waiting in line.

Wells, a native of Culver City and UCLA graduate, said he vividly remembered when Ford became president after Nixon resigned.

"We were hopeful that he knew what he was doing when he took over," Wells said, "and it was evident as time went on, especially with everything he was challenged with, that he did."

George Kephart said he was visiting the White House the day that Ford decided to launch his campaign for a full four-year term. It was an accident of history -- in more ways than one.

"I turned around into a waiter, carrying a tray of drinks, and I was ready to go home," said Kephart, recalling his embarrassment. But the Silver Spring, Md., funeral director said he stayed long enough to meet the first lady and shake her hand.

Michigan alum Myers, an Air Force officer, recalled that Ford used to give occasional pep talks to the football team before games. He said he had a photograph of Ford and the longtime Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, who died in mid-November.

"We've lost two great Wolverines this year," Myers said.

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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