Betty Ford, wife of the late President Gerald R. Ford and tireless advocate for breast cancer and substance abuse awareness, passed away in Palm Springs, Calif. on Friday at the age of 93.
As news of Ford’s passing spread across campus — where the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy bears the name of her late husband — University officials praised her extensive work both at the University and beyond.
Susan Collins, dean of the Ford School, lauded Ford as a model for compassion and strength and praised her ability to empower others.
“… Speaking out in thoughtful, balanced ways and really making a difference on issues that she cared about was empowering to women especially, but also to people all around the world,” Collins said. “She really was a very, very impressive woman who was quite beloved by all the people she met.”
From being chosen to receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from the University in 1976, to visiting for the groundbreaking of Weill Hall in November 2004, Ford had a distinguished presence on campus, University President Mary Sue Coleman said in a July 8 School of Public Policy press release.
“Betty Ford was a gracious and generous friend of the University, as well as a warm personal friend,” Coleman said. “She was a wonderful partner with her husband, the late President Gerald R. Ford, and together with their children they were steadfast supporters of Michigan. We will miss her dedication and enthusiasm, and will remember the affection she showed our community.”
Alongside her husband, Betty Ford co-chaired the Michigan Difference campaign and helped raise money for the construction of the Ford School, Collins said, adding, “she was very generous with her time” and always met with students, faculty and staff.
Even following President Ford’s death on December 26, 2006, the former first lady remained involved with the affairs of the University, even meeting with Collins at her home in California after she was named dean of the Ford School in 2007.
“She very graciously spent some time with me and a staff member hearing about what was happening at the school,” Collins said. “She was very interested in me as the dean and my interests and direction for the school. It was a wonderful visit.”
Collins added that Ford’s work with women’s rights would be one of her most lasting impacts.
“For all of the things she has done in the rights of women … she was just a force and made a tremendous impression at that time that I think has really been quite lasting,” Collins said. “She was an active supporter for the Equal Rights Amendment, and that was quite controversial at that time, as were a number of the positions she took.”
David Horrocks, supervisory archivist for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, said the source of her dedication to the University spurred mostly from President Ford — a student and celebrated player for the football team in the early 1930s.
Elaine Didier, Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum director, echoed Horrocks’ sentiment and said that Ford eagerly supported her husband’s initiatives for the University.
“The University was primarily President Ford’s love,” Didler said. “He went to school here, he was the football star, he came back repeatedly … he was very proud of the Ford School being built. But certainly she was right there with him.”
In addition to her work with the University, Ford also publicly struggled with both cancer and substance abuse. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974, she openly discussed the issue with the public, a decision Collins said resulted in “changing the comfort level of talking about what had been a very taboo and private subject.”
Ford also spoke openly about her addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol in the years following her battle with breast cancer. After her family confronted her about her prescription drug and alcohol use, Ford entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital in California in 1978. Once she fully recovered, she founded the Betty Ford Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. in 1982 to provide resources for people struggling with substance abuse.
The facility — regarded today as one of the premier addiction centers in the world — will be another of Ford’s most outstanding impacts, Collins said.
“(It is) a model for how you address addiction to alcohol and drugs and how you support and treat both the men and women who are addicted but also their families,” she said.
Horrocks said this candor is what people admired most about Ford, and is a quality that made it easy for Americans to identify with her. He added that even at her most vulnerable, she appeared both poised and genuine.
“I think she really was what she appeared to be to the public, by which I mean a kind and genuine person,” he said.