A Final Return Home

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., Jan. 3 -- Gerald R. Ford's family and closest friends laid the former president to rest beside a fast-flowing river in the heart of a city that adored him. During the last stretch of a somber week of benedictions, an admirer praised him as a courageous leader "who never confused moderation with weakness nor compromise with surrender."

A once bright winter sun melted into twilight as Ford's widow, Betty, received from Vice President Cheney the American flag that had adorned the coffin of the 38th president. Ford's death Dec. 26 at age 93 ended an odyssey that carried him from a humble start in the Midwest to a heartfelt national farewell.

Former president Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in 1976 and later became a friend, began and ended his benediction the way he began his inaugural address. Now white-haired, his voice breaking, Carter repeated: "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land."

The memorial service, held at Grace Episcopal Church, where Gerald and Betty Ford were married in 1948, brought together a lifetime of friends and acquaintances from the highly placed to the less than mighty.

Among the eulogists was former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who recalled the calamity of President Richard M. Nixon's resignation, which thrust Ford into the Oval Office on Aug. 9, 1974. It was a time when "the pressures were enormous . . . and the American people were holding their breath, wondering what would happen next."

When Ford reassured the country, Rumsfeld said, "his special magic" was that few doubted his word.

Historian Richard Norton Smith, who often visited Ford, described him to mourners as "utterly without pretense." He recalled that in the last chapter of his life, the former president told him, "When I wake up at night and can't sleep, I think of Grand Rapids."

The city returned the favor Tuesday and Wednesday. Tens of thousands of residents lined the streets to glimpse his passing hearse or stood for hours in the windy cold to view his coffin.

It seemed every third mourner had a personal story to share. Often, it was about a good deed that Ford had done, or a recollection that suggested a simpler, more civil time when the people felt closer to those in power.

Eagle Scout Jason Beaton, 18, related that his grandmother used to double-date with Ford. Linda Komejan, 52, said Ford interceded to get a driver's license for her mentally handicapped uncle, allowing him to get to work.

Retired teacher Marian Krupiczewicz, 59, recalled going to Ford's Capitol Hill office in the 1960s as a teenager and sitting in his chair: "There'd even be papers on his desk. It was different then."

"I remember as a kid going out to East Grand Rapids, riding my bike out there, because the president was coming to town," said William Dekker, 46. "Thirty years later, it's the same thing."

Handmade signs declared, "Welcome Home, Mr. President."

As the Episcopal service of thanksgiving began, many of the 31 men and women named honorary pallbearers took their seats, among them Cheney and golfer Jack Nicklaus. A maize-and-blue University of Michigan football blanket marked the pew that former coach Bo Schembechler, who died in November, would have occupied.

Son Michael Ford read the 23rd Psalm and son Steven read in a quavering voice from Paul's Letter to the Romans. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's White House chief of staff, recalled that Ford never lowered himself to the partisanship that often marked Washington dealings.

"He reminded Americans of who they were and he put us on the right path when the way ahead was at best uncertain," Rumsfeld said, recalling Ford's 895-day presidency. "It is commonly said that Ford healed the nation, and he did."

After the church service, the cortege made its way back across town to the gravesite beside the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. A military band played "Ruffles and Flourishes" for the final time, followed by a medley of patriotic songs, among them "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America."

The family followed the pallbearers and the coffin, Betty Ford helped from a wheelchair by Steven Ford and her military escort. As artillery fired a 21-gun salute and 21 military jets staged a precision flyover, the coffin lay beneath an inscription chosen by the Fords: "Lives committed to God, country and love."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company