Though Betty Ford passed away last July, her legacy as a trailblazer in fighting breast cancer and substance abuse continues on, both at the University and beyond.
Students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents gathered in Rackham Auditorium on Thursday afternoon to celebrate her efforts on the important issues. The tribute to the former first lady featured numerous notable figures — including Michael Ford, the eldest son of Gerald and Betty Ford, Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.), University President Mary Sue Coleman and Sanford Weill, former CEO of Citigroup and the namesake of Weill Hall, which houses the Ford School of Public Policy — and speeches on Ford’s efforts.
In her keynote address, Nancy G. Brinker, the founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, said public awareness and discussion of breast cancer has made strides with the help of Ford, the first public figure to openly discuss her battle with the disease.
Brinker noted that while today’s generation of students recognizes breast cancer as a prominent issue, the topic was largely taboo during Ford’s era, creating challenges for fighting the cause amid a culture that banned the word “breast” on public television.
“The disease was discussed in whispers, but it’s very difficult for students today to comprehend that with a 24/7 news cycle, social media and the ability to share opinions instantly across the world with a mobile device,” Brinkler said.
Despite the challenges, Ford prevailed, and today Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the largest advocacy organization for cancer awareness in the world. Brinkler noted that the organization began in 1982 with 800 members and now has grown to include more than 2 million people.
“Most people thought that we would have a fundraiser or two and then just go back to being housewives,” Brinker said.
In her address at the event, President Coleman lauded Ford for exemplary actions as first lady.
“Betty Ford was a role model — and not just for women,” Coleman said. “She raised our consciousness and helped expand public perceptions of the roles of women to include family and professional careers. She showed all of us the value and importance of integrity, honesty and dignity.”
Coleman said she was able to interact with both Ford and President Ford in the time she’s been at the University.
“I first admired Betty Ford from afar,” Coleman said. “After coming to the University, I had the great honor of knowing her and President Ford and calling them friends. As so many people here know, President and Mrs. Ford were absolutely delightful and together with their children they were steadfast supporters of Michigan.”
Public Policy Dean Susan M. Collins said while Ford had no formal training in public policy, she succeeded in tremendously impacting women’s rights and influenced some of the most important public policies of the modern era.
“She was, of course, married to a career politician and spent over 27 years as the wife of a congressman, vice president and then president,” Collins said. “But most importantly, Mrs. Ford had conviction. Outspoken and independent by nature, upbringing in life circumstance, she had the courage to speak her mind. It’s no surprise that here at the University of Michigan and at the Ford School, we consider Mrs. Ford an exemplar for our students.”
Though Ford began studying dance at Bennington College in Vermont, she eventually returned to her home in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she met Gerald Ford and became a dedicated wife and effective campaigner.
In 1975, she was famously quoted insisting she would not let her position as first lady prevent her from expressing her stances on issues like women’s rights, Collins said.
“She proudly called herself a feminist, and she actively lobbied for the passage of the equal rights amendment,” Collins said. “After the Watergate scandal and cover up, her husband took all this promising transparency to the American people. And in that charged context, Mrs. Ford bravely decided to make public her treatment for breast cancer.”
Collins said Ford’s courage and outspokenness was initially controversial, but Americans from each side of the political aisle came to admire her candor and her popularity soared. Initiatives launched during her time as first lady de-stigmatized the discussion of prescription drug abuse.
“Throughout her life, Betty Ford spoke her story — an honest, American story about child bearing, work, illness, recovery and family,” Collins said. “That story resonated with so many of her fellow citizens in a way that political leaders rarely do.”
Collins concluded her speech by encouraging students to look to Ford as an inspiration and an example.
“Speak out,” Collins said. “Find your conviction. Tell your story, your work, your impact, and your service might be just the living legacy that President Ford and the irrepressible Mrs. Betty Ford would most have treasured.”
LSA senior Mallory Edel expressed her admiration for Ford and Brinker, adding that she enjoyed attending an event that honored such distinguished women.
“They created the perfect storm for breast cancer progress,” Edel said. “I found the lecture very inspiring. It was an incredible and amazing talk.”
Lisa Braddix, a program specialist for Komen Detroit Race for the Cure, said she was amazed to learn the extent to which Ford was involved in promoting the cause of fighting breast cancer.
“I didn’t really understand how her role led to the explosion of awareness that we have now,” Braddix said. “Comparing it to what it was when she was in the White House to where we are today, we really have to give her a lot of credit.”