GRAND RAPIDS – With the Michigan Marching Band playing “The Victors” and cannons firing a 21-gun salute on the tarmac of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, pall bearers returned the body of former President Gerald Ford to his native Grand Rapids Tuesday afternoon after a state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington.

Sarah Royce
The Michigan Marching Band stands by as a hearse, carrying the remains of former President Gerald Ford, drives past after arriving at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport on Tuesday in Grand Rapids. (AP PHOTO)
Sarah Royce
A group of mourners gather to look at mementos left in front of the sign for the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids on Tuesday. Among the tokens were American flags and Michigan paraphernalia. (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)

Thousands of people, many waving American flags and wearing University apparel, lined the streets of Grand Rapids as a motorcade carried Ford’s coffin from the airport to the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids.

Rick and Tom Dood stood on the side of the road with a large block “M” flag draped over the fence in front of them. The brothers did not attend the University, but said Ford was a “Michigan Man,” and so it seemed appropriate to display the University flag.

“This is history being made for Grand Rapids, and we want to be part of that history,” Tom Dood said.

A private memorial service was held for the Ford family and guests when the coffin arrived at the museum Tuesday afternoon. There, University President Mary Sue Coleman placed a wreath on Ford’s coffin to honor the University’s best known alum.

Ford was buried on the grounds of his presidential museum yesterday.

He always expressed a deep love for his hometown of Grand Rapids. He grew up there and represented the city in Congress for 25 years before serving as vice president and then president. Even after retiring to California, Ford often thought of his hometown. “When I wake up at night and can’t sleep, I remember Grand Rapids,” Ford said in an interview with the New York Daily News in May.

The people of Grand Rapids seemed to love Ford, too.

Thousands of them were eager to pay their final respects to the city’s native son. According to estimates from the military, which arranged the ceremonies, more than 57,000 people filed past Ford’s coffin during the overnight visitation to bid farewell to the only president who called Michigan home.

Some of those who paid their respects said Ford directly touched their lives.

Don Kuiper, who waited outside the airport for Ford’s casket to arrive, credits the former president with potentially saving his life. In 1968, at the height of the Tet Offensive, Kuiper’s Army Reserves medical unit was scheduled to depart for a tour of duty in Vietnam. Kuiper and his fellow soldiers appealed to then-Congressman Ford for assistance.

“Ford intervened on our behalf and kept our unit stateside,” Kuiper said.

Ford realized that the departure of the unit would have devastated the Grand Rapids Hospital, where many of the men in his unit worked. He had arranged for a unit from Cincinnati go instead, Kuiper said.

Paul Schulte, who graduated from the University in 1959, brought his young grandson with him to visit Ford’s coffin. Schulte said his 5-year-old son wrote a condolence letter to Ford after he lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, and he was surprised to receive a detailed thank-you note back from the Ford White House.

For Kinesiology junior Jessica Cox, one of the 150 members of the Michigan Marching Band who played when the president’s coffin arrived at the airport, participating in the funeral of a former president was a great honor.

“You can never get an honor greater than this,” Cox said. “It’s a big deal and I just wanted to be a part of it.”

Cox and the other members of the marching band flew directly to Grand Rapids from California after playing at the Rose Bowl. She said despite being awake for 48 hours, members of the band were proud to play for the president.

“(The mood) wasn’t as sad as I thought it was going to be,” she said. “We were all proud to be there.”

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