Surrounded by old friends and familiar faces from the past, Gerald R. Ford heard himself praised for his "steady, uncompromisingly honorable leadership" today at the dedication of the library that holds his presidental papers.

The dedication of the $4.3 million Ford Presidential Library took place on a sunny spring afternoon on the campus of the University of Michigan, where, almost 50 years ago, the future 38th president was a college football star.

The dedication ceremony was attended by dozens of former Cabinet officials and White House aides from the Ford administration. But one of the key figures from that time was not present nor even mentioned by name, although he was alluded to repeatedly during the day.

This was former president Richard N. Nixon, who made Ford the only unelected vice president and then president in America history, and whose resignation on April 9, 1974, set the stage for what today was called Ford's most important achievement.

"We were an aggregation of individuals, torn, confused and disappointed by the unavoidable evidence of low conduct in high places," Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken said of the country at that time. "And there was Gerald Ford to provide us with the ind of steady, uncompromisingly honorable leadership we needed when we needed it."

Calling Ford's performance as president in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal "his greatest gift to us," Milliken said.

"He restored integrity to the highest office in our land by his very presence there -- a public service almost beyond measure in its value."

This same theme, that Ford restored faith in the integrity of government after the Watergate scandal, was struck repeatedly during the day by speakes and in a written message from President Reagan that was read at the dedication by General Services Administrator Gerald P. Carmen.

During "a dark period in American history," Reagan said in the message Ford's "quiet strength of character restored the faith of our country."

The former president, a naturally emotional man, appeared deeply moved by the tributes.

Ford was also relaxed and clearly enjoying himself throughout the day, at one point conducting a tour of the two-story glass and brick library that features an exhibit of mementos from his visits to China.

This morning Ford had breakfast with some of the reporters who covered his presidency and, as he has in the past, strongly defended his controversial pardon of Nixon.

Ford said he issued the pardon to prevent a likely trial of Nixon from dragging on for years, distracting the government and the people from other issues. He said this clearly hurt him in the 1976 presidential election, but added, "I refuse to say that it cost me the election because there were other things."

On more current topics, Ford said he supports Reagan's decision to sell advanced radar warning planes to Saudi Arabia but he expressed reservations over the president's decision to lift the Soviet grain embargo.

"That's a tough call," he said.

Ford also said that in traveling around the country he has detected a growing sense of optimism, particularly about the Reagan economic program.

"The American people think it will work and they want it to work," he said.