Tears, pride flow in Grand Rapids as Ford comes home

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Their brightest link with history came home Tuesday.

And no one dared miss it.

Mothers rushed up dangerous freeway embankments with strollers in tow to catch a glimpse of the motorcade; elderly couples stood purposeful in a long line just to pass the casket of the man they affectionately knew as Jerry.

On a cold and sunny winter day, to strains of “The Victors,” to thousands of admirers young and old and in between, President Gerald R. Ford came home Tuesday. Everywhere, eyes glistened.

“I just think it’s great to have a president from our area,” said Stephanie VantZelfde, 32, a resident of Lowell, Mich., about 20 miles east of Grand Rapids. “I was too young to know what President Ford stood for. But now that I’m older, I understand why he made us all so proud. He’s family.”

Wednesday afternoon, he will be interred on a hill overlooking his presidential museum on the banks of the Grand River.

A dozen F 15 Eagle jets roared across the city in pairs Tuesday, drawing the gazes of Monroe Street lunchgoers.

Grand Rapids was abuzz Tuesday, as people – political celebrities and ordinary folks – flowed into the west Michigan city that is welcoming the former president to his hometown one final time.

Hours earlier, Ford was honored at an elaborate invitation-only service at the Washington National Cathedral.

During the national day of mourning that closed most of the government as well as financial markets, subdued crowds watched the cortege.

Inside the cathedral, more than 3,000 people, including the three living ex-presidents – Bill Clinton, George Bush and Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in 1976 – mourned the man who was charged with restoring trust in government after President Richard Nixon’s fall.

In Grand Rapids, people remembered a humble congressman who rose to the occasion when called on to restore faith in government.

“He was a good man, and they don’t make them like that anymore,” said Ruth Brinks, 36, of Grand Rapids, who was on the side of the road and struggled to maneuver a stroller up a hill to view the motorcade.

Ford’s casket arrived in Grand Rapids at mid-afternoon. Traffic snaked around the city and downtown, and heightened security forced dozens of street closures, but no one seemed to mind.

After all, one day of inconvenience would yield a lifetime of stories. And everyone in Grand Rapids seems to have a Jerry Ford story.

“I can really say he truly reflected western Michigan values, and they’re good values,” said Martheen Versluys, 66, who grew up hearing stories about how Ford bought topsoil from her father’s landscape business and often visited her great-grandfather on his farm.

“We lost a tremendous warrior and a tremendous role model,” Versluys said.

While his post-White House years were spent mostly in southern California, it was fitting that he chose Grand Rapids as his final resting place, said former Michigan Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus.

“It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend,” he said, after watching the solemn ceremonies at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport when the president’s casket arrived.

Posthumus still has the photo of his 1968 Caledonia High School senior class trip to Washington, D.C. The class posed on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with Ford.

Al Mooney, the Grand Rapids city treasurer, came to the airport to pay tribute to the man who got his first presidential vote. He wore the campaign button that he got in 1976 when Ford ran for president and lost. But it wasn’t that presidential run that caught his memory.

“The father of a friend of mine was an immigrant, and when he passed the exam for citizenship, Ford came to the house to personally congratulate him,” Mooney said.

For Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, Ford’s return home represented a full circle of political life for her. She first met Ford 30 years ago when, inspired by the former congressman, she got into politics.

“But this time is so much more emotional,” she said.

Before Ford’s casket reached the museum, about 2,000 people of all ages lined Pearl Street across from it.

When the motorcade arrived at 4:05 p.m., silence fell over the crowd except for the constant click of cameras capturing the moment and the voices of children.

Hundreds of Eagle Scouts, who stood in the street, saluted as the motorcade passed. Carter waved back.

Overwhelmingly, people said they came for two reasons: to pay their respects to the man who got his start in their hometown and to witness history.

Judy Johnson, 53, of Byron Center, Mich., said she felt enormous pride about what Ford had done for Grand Rapids.

“It’s putting it on the map,” she said. “He represented our city and state very well. I just thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I didn’t want to miss it.”

Brenda Dawson, 47, of Walker, Mich., brought a sign that said, “895 Thank Yous” – a nod to the number of days Ford served as president.

“I wanted to recognize his time in office and say thank you to Mrs. Ford and to him,” she said.

And local businesses – from fast-food restaurants to parking lots – posted condolences and tributes in honor of the late president. A Big Boy restaurant downtown advertised it would remain open for 24 hours for late-night crowds that wandered in after making it through the lines to view the president – his casket lying in repose at the Ford museum until Wednesday morning.

Jason Beaton, 18, of Grand Haven, Mich., was one of the hundreds of Eagle Scouts on hand. Besides sharing the scouting bond with Ford, Beaton’s family has another link – he said his grandmother had once gone on a double-date with Ford.

“It means a lot to me to be here to pay respects to a guy like Mr. Ford,” he said.

As Kenn Spencer and his wife, Carol, watched the motorcade pass, they stood apart, lost in their own thoughts. After the president’s remains had passed, their eyes met and Kenn Spencer’s chin trembled as he began to cry. “We just loved him,” Spencer said.

Some estimates suggested more than 200,000 people could visit Grand Rapids; others said such an estimate may be too high.

By early Tuesday evening, there was a four-hour wait for people in line to view the casket.

Inside the museum, people shuffled past the casket quickly, usually within a minute.

In the neighborhood where Ford grew up, the atmosphere was a little less chaotic – but Ford’s presence was still felt.

A giant American flag and bunting graced the porch of the three-story home where Ford grew up, now a federal and state historic landmark.

“I think tomorrow is going to be crazy,” said Rob Kent, who has lived in the house since 1991 and says there has been a steady stream of visitors to the house since Ford’s death last week.

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