For two and a half days, I've been mesmerized as the ceremonies of President Gerald R. Ford's funeral unfolded. Being only 45 miles away from his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I saw the local television stations center on the funeral events, placing all of it's news correspondents in every single funeral venue. Their interviews and observations were amazing, and I was transfixed on this live tv from morning to night for nearly the entire time.
Jerry Ford is so well-loved in Western Michigan that the locals consider him part of their family. They don't care if he was a Republican. They don't care that he only spent the first third of his life in Grand Rapids (the second third was mostly in Washington, D.C. and finally, his last third of life was in retirement in California). What they cared about and clearly recognized in Jerry Ford was his decency, his well-known fairness and honesty, and his genuine "love all and do harm to none" attitude.
He represented everyone in his congressional district for more than 25 years, and made many friends in both his district and in Washington. Some were famous, some were not; some of his closest friends were people now not particularly well-liked. It didn't matter to him; they were his long-time friends, and he was always true-blue to them, no matter which way the wind blew. He could separate his politics from his friendships, and it made him one of the most popular politicians the United States has ever known.
This might explain why a huge billboard was erected this past week, with a gigantic yet simple message. Grand Rapids loved Gerald Ford. The sign had only these words:
Gerald "Our" Ford
Ford family touched by public response
During these past couple of days I learned all sorts of things about Jerry Ford. He represented Michigan's strong, beautiful Midwestern values, and his reputation shined like a light in the pitch-black darkness during the Vietnam War days because of those values.
But back to these past couple of days. Prior to the funeral, local military veterans wanted to honor him during the processions (there were several motorcade processions, since President Ford's body laid in state at the Museum, and then was moved to Grace Episcopal Church, and then returned for burial at the Museum). WOOD-TV Channel 8 placed phone calls to local vets groups, asking that they come down to the Presidental Museum as the funeral motorcade arrived. They were asked to wear anything from their uniforms that they could still fit into - full uniforms, jackets, even just their hats - as a show of support.
By 8:30 am, they began showing up on the motorcade route next to the Museum. The hearse was not expected to arrive until after 2:15 pm. The Secret Service asked that the veterans limit their numbers to 50 - 100 total. By the time the hearse and it's accompanying 70+ vehicles arrived at 4 pm, hundreds and hundreds of veterans lined the street, including honor guards, flag waving vets in their 90s, and at least one recently-returned Iraq War veteran in full uniform. The Secret Service gave up.
Did you know that Jerry Ford is the only President to reach Eagle Scout status? The Ford family asked that Boy Scouts come down to the motorcade route next to the Museum, and more than 200 showed up in Scout uniform. The Gerald R. Ford Council of Boy Scouts is the only known Council named after a still-living person. The Scouts who were there during the entrance motorcade were the very first to be allowed to pay their respects at the Museum during the 18 hour Presidental repose.
Since the repose was available to the public from 5 pm Tuesday until 11 am Wednesday, there wasn't much time to pay last respects to their favorite son, Jerry. More than 12,000 were waiting when the Museum opened at 5 pm, and it was estimated that 60,000 waited in line during the night.
People from across the state drove hundreds of miles to give him a well-loved send-off. But they also came from Chicago, Indiana, Ohio and other states, and at least one fellow drove straight to Grand Rapids from Connecticut. They stood in line for 4 to 6 hours, quietly waiting for their turn to say goodbye. The long line of people, 6 to 7 deep, extended more than one mile. They waited patiently, sharing Ford stories - so many of them had in one way or another been touched by Jerry Ford during his many decades of being a local attorney and congressman.
Years ago, Jerry Ford said he didn't want a State Funeral when he died. He was a man of the people, and didn't believe in all that pageantry nonsense. He didn't want a Riderless Horse in the processional, and didn't want a caisson either. Referring to those days in the 1860s when President Lincoln was honored at his funeral with both, Jerry said, "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln."
Instead, Gerald R. Ford wanted a very small and quiet funeral for his family and friends. It took those family, friends and his post-presidential staff a long, long time before they finally convinced him that he must have a funeral that could be shared with the public. Although Jerry saw himself as an everyday kind of guy, the people around him knew how special he really was.
On the last day of the funeral, tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Grand Rapids, waiting hours and hours. They were there to send Jerry home. The Ford family understood the connection Western Michigan had to their husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, and they carefully chose the motorcade route to drive slowly, at 20 miles per hour, along residential and then city streets so his friends could say farewell.
The hand-made sign along the motorcade said it all - "God - Country - Family". It was Jerry's personal motto, and he used it frequently during his 93 years of life. The message on his crypt is similar: "Lives Committed to God, Country, and Love." He meant that statement in exactly the order it is written.
The President Gerald Rudolph Ford Museum is on the banks of the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids. Several years ago, the Ford children planted spruce trees as a tribute to their father. The trees are grand now, very tall and stately. They line the location where their father is now buried, part of a living memorial to a man they know as "Dad".