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Warm Memories of a Leader in Everyday Life

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006

Even in the barber's chair, he brought along a handful of papers to work on.

In his Alexandria neighborhood, he was an ephemeral figure, known for his early-morning splash in the swimming pool before he reported to Capitol Hill. At night, neighbors would note the limousine idling outside the red-brick Colonial, waiting to take him to another function or another vote, his long workday not yet over.

Gerald R. Ford returns to Washington tomorrow, a setting where he was both the most powerful man in the world and Everyman. The longtime congressman and 38th president of the United States spent nearly three decades in the Washington area and has been gone for three decades more. But long before the rest of the nation recognized his signature qualities -- his hardworking manner, his kind regard for others, his basic decency -- friends and associates in the D.C. area knew that Gerry Ford was a prince of a guy.

"Oh, he was the nicest man who ever lived," said Nancy Smith of Alexandria, the Ford family's "backdoor neighbor" for many years.

Many of the people who knew Ford well are gone now. But as Americans mourn the passing of a leader who soothed a troubled nation at a critical time, those whose lives intersected with his in the Washington area cherish a special collection of memories.

Every 10 days, like clockwork, Ford would settle into Joseph Quattrone's big leather chair at the congressional barbershop for a 75-cent trim. Between cuts yesterday, Quattrone, 72, recalled his former customer "with a tear in my eye."

"I have all nice people, but he was exceptional," said Quattrone, who manages the Rayburn Building shop and cut Ford's hair from 1970, when he was House minority leader, until he became president in 1974. "Maybe it was because of how he grew up or where he came from, but he was a gentleman and a half."

Ford would always hurry in with a sheaf of papers to study, but he never failed to ask Quattrone how he was doing. "We didn't talk about politics," the barber said. "Sometimes I would say, someday he's going to be a good speaker of the House, and he would say, 'It would be nice.' "

Those plans, of course, did not work out. After Ford became vice president in 1973, "I said, 'Now I'm going to lose you,' " Quattrone recalled. "And he said, 'No, you'll never lose me.' He came back after he was vice president. He came to me until the day before he got sworn in as president.

"He didn't talk too much that day -- he was kind of sad."

For years, neighbor Nancy Smith could practically tell time from the sounds of the future president doing his morning swim in the pool outside her kitchen window. "I'd hear him hit the water when I was getting breakfast," said Smith, now 76, whose family moved into the Fords' neighborhood in 1962.

Ford did not make it to many community cookouts or parties, she said.

"My sense was they just didn't have time to do neighborhood things -- they were too busy." When he was present, Smith added, "we would talk about our kids. He was never the big shot, which was very nice. He didn't have any inflated opinions of his own importance, as so many politicians do."

James Cannon, a former Newsweek editor who served as Ford's domestic policy adviser, said that description was always apt -- sometimes to the president's detriment.

"He was not a charismatic man. He was a workhorse, not a show horse, and he was much better in person than on television," said Cannon, a Georgetown resident who wrote the 1994 book "Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment With History."

"The White House is the first stage of the world, and the president, whether it's Reagan or Clinton or Kennedy, [is a performer], and Ford was not a very good performer. He was a plain-spoken Midwesterner, and acting was not among his attributes," Cannon said.

Sometimes, attempts to jazz up the stolid Ford image backfired. Former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly recalled the time he enlisted Los Angeles comic Don Penny to coach the president on his speech delivery during the 1976 campaign. "It took a lot for him to be angry," Kennerly said.

But during a practice speech in the Cabinet Room, after Penny had interrupted the president several times, instructing him to speak his words as if he meant them, Ford blew up. He reached into a pocket, pulled out a Cross pen and lobbed it at the comedian, missing and chipping the wall above Penny's head.

"He always had such a calm about him; it was great to get a rise out of him," Penny said yesterday. "It was a pleasure to work with him. He was a wonderful man."

Even his political opponents agreed. For 17 years, Ford and U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell both represented Michigan in Congress -- Ford as a Republican, Dingell as a Democrat.

"Gerry Ford was a good, hard fighter, but he also knew how to come together on a set of common purposes," said Dingell, the longest-serving current member of Congress.

"From time to time, events happen that change the outlook, that cause people to reflect and perhaps change the way they function," Dingell said. "And frankly, Gerry Ford in his passing has reminded people that a White House and a Congress, even if they are opposing parties, can work together in the public interest of the country."

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