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Challenges and Candor

How many of you have kept a scrapbook on an interesting subject? I once knew a woman who kept a matchbook cover from every restaurant she had patronized. She was near age 80 when she showed it to me, and it was massive. She had organized the matchbook covers according to states, and she had visited all 50 states. It certainly was an impressive collection, and as we looked over her collection, she entertained me with stories about travels. It set a fire within me to start a scrapbook.

Upon returning home, I mentioned to my parents that I would like to start a scrapbook on an interesting subject. I finally settled on U. S. Presidents and First Ladies. Their introduction to my scrapbook would start with their Inauguration. The year was 1969 and Richard M. Nixon became the 37th President of the United States. I was off and running with a scissor in my hand. I took great interest in First Lady Pat Nixon’s yellow silk satin evening gown created by Karen Stark of Harvey Berin. Did you know that her jacket, collar and cummerbund were embroidered in gold and silver bullion with Austrian Jewels?

At age 9, I was consumed with the Nixon Family and read everything I could about them. The social highlight of the first administration was the June wedding of Tricia, in the Rose Garden, to Edward Cox . When Nixon easily won re-election in 1972, I was more than ready for another Inaugural and Pat made another grand appearance in a light blue evening gown. The Watergate crisis soon destroyed his presidency. Nixon resigned from office in August 1974. I was staying with my Grandpa Repnow, and for several hours we watched as the Nixons left Washington, D.C. and as Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as president and Betty Ford became our new First Lady. With my eye on fashion, I remember the attractive light blue knit dress with short jacket and a box-pleated skirt that Betty wore. Gerald Ford looked properly presidential in a dark suit with a bold tie.

My time spent reading about the Fords was always interesting. Just the thought of being thrust into the role of President by chance, intrigued me. Think of how their lives changed overnight. It didn’t take me long to see the warmth and integrity President Ford brought to the highest office in our land.

Ford had attended the University of Michigan and became a star football player. He furthered his education by attending Yale Law School while coaching the university’s football team. He served in World War II, joined the Navy serving in the South Pacific and rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. He practiced law in Michigan before winning a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives in 1948. He served in the House for 25 years, acting as the Republican party’s minority leader between 1965-1973. He became vice president after his predecessor, Spiro T. Agnew, resigned. Ford never suffered delusions of grandeur about his place in history, announcing “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.” Ever his critics admit his candor along with his life experiences aided him greatly in bringing harmony as vice president and president.

After graduating high school in Grand Rapids, Betty Bloomer attended the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont, where she studied modern dance for two years under some of the best professional dancers of that time. She then went on to more intensive training with the Martha Graham Concert Group in New York and appeared with them on stage. While in New York she also became a John Robert Powers fashion model. It certainly was an exciting life and a demanding one. Her ties to Grand Rapids brought her home. She continued to work as a fashion model and also as a fashion coordinator for a department store there.

She married William Warren when she was 24 and it ended in divorce five years later on the grounds of incompatibility. She resumed her maiden name and pressed forward with her career. She organized her own dance group in Grand Rapids, as well as volunteering time and her talent to teach creative dance to crippled, handicapped and underprivileged children.

In time she began to date the attractive bachelor lawyer, Gerald R. Ford. He was running for the office of Representative from the Fifth District of Michigan. They were married on Oct. 15, 1948 and Betty wore a deep blue suit. A few weeks later, Gerald Ford was elected.

This was the beginning to a career for them both in politics and so much more. Betty’s training in style, grace along with her natural friendliness and poise were assets in the days ahead.

Fashions favored by the First Lady often become popular. Betty saw an article in a Washington newspaper about designer Robert Capraro in which he talked about his use of only American fabrics. She was so impressed by the 31-year-old designer’s prices that she had him summoned to the White House and subsequently ordered 12 styles. When Capraro first received the call, he thought it was a joke. Capraro described her as the perfect model and one who was concerned about high necklines and garments that cover her arms. Capraro went on to design many outfits for the First Lady. Both the Fords took an interest in fashion and thus had a lot of clothing. One night while sleeping in the White House, they heard a terrible crash. Upon looking they realized that the closet rods that were used for both of their garments had pulled out of the wall due to the excess weight!

I do believe if we were to line up all the First Ladies and judge them for thickness and beauty of hair, Betty Ford would win. She was blessed with great hair, this along with her keen mind and self-confidence allowed her to be herself in an honest and forthright manner. She spoke her mind, stood up for women’s rights, and was open about her fight with breast cancer. After her husband, Gerald R. Ford, left office, Mrs. Ford with the help of her family sought treatment for alcoholism and an addiction to painkillers.

In 1982 she founded, and served as the first chair of the board of directors, of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction located in Rancho Mirage, California. This along with her speaking out about early detection of breast cancers has saved hundreds of lives. A great example of how she dealt with two negative elements in her life. Ford lost a hotly contested election to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976. Ford left office knowing his honesty helped restore confidence in the American political system. He remains the only man to serve as vice president and president without being elected to either office.

When Jimmy Carter became the 39th President, he offered Former President Ford an open invitation to stop by the White House whenever he was in town. Ford took Carter up on this offer, and they met many times. Carter gave a eulogy at Ford’s funeral saying that in time they became friends even though they were from different political parties. In fact, their spouses also became good friends and as Former President Carter said “we grew to love one another.” In our tumultuous times with the county deeply divided on the major issues facing our nation, it is refreshing to recall what gracious hospitality did to unite them. When Betty Ford passed away, Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter gave a eulogy for her.

These words and actions should be imbued more than ever now. These two extraordinary couples have set an example that their giving to America went well beyond their years in the White House. At his inaugural address, on Aug. 9, 1974 Gerald R. Ford said, “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers.” A simple request asked with humility as he began his role as president.

I cannot finish this column without paying a bit more tribute to Betty. She is the mother of four children: Mike, Jack, Steve and Susan. Many may recall that Susan’s senior prom for the 1975 class of Holton-Arms School was held in the East Room. Susan served as official White House hostess when her mother was hospitalized for breast cancer. Betty did assume most of the responsibility for taking care of the family and managing the home as Gerald sometimes was away from home as many as 200 nights a year campaigning.

Her time in the White House included the celebration of the Bicentennial in 1976. This brought a continuing parade of world leaders offering their congratulations on the 200th birthday of our nation. Betty never had the chance to showcase her fashion sense in a inaugural gown; however, she had plenty of opportunity for formal wear such as the time when they hosted a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. It was during these state dinners and informal affairs that Betty’s interest in the arts was showcased. She often decorated tables in unique ways such as using antiques, dolls and other items of interest to show case the American handicrafts. The National Academy of Design in New York honored Mrs. Ford with a lifetime fellowship for these efforts. Mrs. Ford brought to the White House the dignity and elegance expected of the Executive Mansion. She impressed me as a teenager and still today.

Betty Ford claimed to not like cooking, however, guests at her home were always impressed. This is a recipe that was printed several years ago from her.

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