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Alexandria Recalls Betty Ford as 'Engaged, Down-to-Earth'

As funeral services are held this week in California and Michigan, Alexandria recalls Betty Ford as a mother and wife involved in the community, before she stepped onto national stage as first lady.

As Betty Ford's friends, family and national dignitaries gathered Tuesday for funeral services for the former first lady in Palm Desert, Calif., and prepare for services in Grand Rapids, Mich., Alexandria recalled Ford's years in the city where the family raised their four children.

The Fords, especially Betty, could often be seen out and about in Alexandria in their years here from the mid 1950s to 1974, whether it was strolling through their Clover neighborhood, visiting their sons’ high school, T.C. Williams, shopping for groceries at Safeway near Bradlee Shopping Center or dining at Chez Andree on East Glebe Road.

“I remember going to Safeway with my Mom and Dad, and she would say ‘hi’ and talk to everyone who was up there,” said Lee Hernly, a 1982 graduate of T.C. Williams High School who grew up on Janneys Lane, near the Ford family home in the Clover neighborhood. The Fords loved going to neighborhood parties and barbecues, said Hernly, who authors the Carlyle Community blog.

In her book, “The Times of My Life,” Betty Ford described the morning in Alexandria after her husband’s swearing-in as the 38th president: “At 7 a.m., the President of the United States, in baby blue short pajamas, appears on his doorstep looking for the morning paper, then goes back inside to fix his orange juice and English muffin. Before leaving for his office, he signs autographs on his lawn.”

The lawn she describes was at the family’s home at 514 Crown View Drive in the Clover neighborhood off Janney’s Lane in Alexandria. Designed by Grand Rapids architect Viktors Purins, the house was only the second on the block when the Fords moved in, in 1955, according to the National Park Service.

The family installed a 20-by-40-foot swimming pool in 1961, and after Ford became vice-president, the Secret Service oversaw the addition of safety features such as bullet-proof glass and alarms. The Fords sold the house on Jan. 19, 1977 for $137,000, after Gerald Ford lost the White House in a contest with Jimmy Carter.

Betty Ford became part of the community in Alexandria, as a Cub Scout den mother, cheering her kids on at sports and as a Sunday school teacher.

“She was so down to earth,” recalled Maggie Hansen, who also lived nearby and as a teenager baby-sat the Fords’ two youngest children, Susan and Steve.

Hansen became friends with the Ford family at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, an Episcopal church located at 3606 Seminary Road in Alexandria, where both families attended services. “I helped her with a Sunday school class she taught,” Hansen said. Several years later, in 1975, then-first lady Betty Ford invited Hansen and her mother, as part of a small group, for a visit to the White House Rose Garden.

Before moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Betty Ford was busy raising the couple’s four children in Alexandria, before the first couple and their youngest child, Susan, then 16, moved into the White House. The sons attended T.C. Williams High School.

“I went to T.C. Williams with the two older boys,” said Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille. Mike Ford was in Euille’s Class of 1968 and “Jack was two years behind us,” Euilled noted. Steve, the youngest of the Ford’s three sons, also later attended TC. Susan attended Holton Arms, a girls’ school in Maryland and held the senior prom at the White House.

“The parents were very engaged in their education and on the PTAs as well as attending sports events,” Euille recalled. “They were a fun-loving and pleasant family, prior to and while living in the White House.”

“We were proud of the Ford family while in Congress, as Vice-President and as President, as they spent all of their political years here in Alexandria, and have left a legacy for all to remember,” said Euille.

After Gerald Ford's death in 2006, the city created the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Park, located on the southeast corner of Quaker Lane, across from the church where the Fords used to worship.

In attendance at Tuesday's funeral in Palm Desert, Calif., were occupants past and present of the White House: First lady Michele Obama, former President George W. Bush, former first lady and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former first lady Nancy Reagan, and former first daughter Lynda Bird Johnson Robb (daughter of Lyndon Baines Johnson), and her husband, former U.S. Senator and Gov. Chuck Robb, of McLean, Va.

Former first lady Rosalyn Carter, who became a family friend, also gave a eulogy on Tuesday.

Plans for Wednesday call for Ford’s body to be flown by military aircraft to Grand Rapids, arriving at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, then going to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum for a short ceremony starting at 5 p.m.

Betty Ford's remains will lie in repose in the atrium of the museum, which is to be open to the public from 7 to 11 p.m., and again from 7 to 10 a.m. Thursday.

The Grand Rapids funeral is planned for 2 p.m. Thursday at Grace Episcopal Church, East Grand Rapids. Eulogies are planned from presidential historian Richard Norton Smith and Lynne Cheney, the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who served as President Ford’s chief of staff and 1976 campaign manager.

Following the service, the family plans to return to the museum grounds for a private interment ceremony. Betty Ford will be buried next to Gerald Ford, who died in 2006. His 98th birthday would have been Thursday.

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