Tributes to 'honest man'

The Baltimore Sun

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, it was a way to show his respect for a former Wolverine and fellow alumnus of the University of Michigan.

They -- and thousands of other ordinary citizens -- honored the memory of Gerald R. Ford yesterday, 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 attended by President Bush and other dignitaries is planned for tomorrow at the Washington National Cathedral. After that, the body of the 38th president will be flown to Michigan for burial Wednesday on the grounds of the Ford presidential library in Grand Rapids.

With some wearing the maize and blue colors 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 for nine hours yesterday.

They included parents seeking to give their children a history lesson, Michiganders paying their respects to an esteemed native son, and holiday tourists getting an unexpected memory.

They debated his place in history, his unlikely rise to the Oval Office in 1974 and his controversial pardon of Richard 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 Chrysler Arena in Ann Arbor 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 on his lapels, including one that read "Don't Settle for Peanuts -- Elect Ford," a reference to the Carter family's 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 felt that it's too simple an explanation to blame Ford's loss 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 an adviser to Cheney, who was among those waiting in line.

Wells said he vividly remembers 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."

Myers, an Air Force officer and Michigan alumnus, recalled how Ford used to give occasional pep talks to the Michigan 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.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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