University alum and former President Gerald Ford, who sought to restore trust in the presidency in the aftermath of one of the most scandal-ridden administrations in American history, died at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. on Dec. 26. He was 93.
When asked in 1995 what his greatest accomplishment was as president, Ford said it was “healing America.”
And heal America he did. Ford’s honest Midwestern demeanor calmed a nation beset by a deep unease after the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate.
Ford was never elected to the presidency or vice presidency. In 1973, then-President Richard Nixon appointed then-Congressman Ford to take the place of Vice President Spiro Agnew after bribery charges forced Agnew to resign.
His presidency will be remembered most for a single act – the decision to grant Nixon an unconditional pardon for all crimes he committed while president. The pardon sparked a national outcry and sent Ford’s approval ratings plummeting. It likely cost him the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.
Now, the pardon has come to be viewed as necessary to prevent the nation from having to see a former president in court for years.
Ford graduated from the University in 1935 with a double major in economics and political science. He played center on a football team that won two national championships. Ford was named the team’s most valuable player in 1934. The University retired his jersey, number 48, in 1994.
He came to Ann Arbor in the middle of the Great Depression from his boyhood home in Grand Rapids with a $100 scholarship to cover tuition and $100 he had earned working in a paint factory. His football coach, Harry Kipke, helped him find jobs washing dishes and waiting tables at the University hospital.
In his autobiography “A Time to Heal” he wrote that a “wonderful” aunt and uncle sent him $2 each week. He also donated blood every two or three months, earning $25 each time.
One of the places where Ford washed dishes was his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, where he worked to pay his room and board.
In the spring of his sophomore year, Ford was slated to have surgery to repair a knee he had injured playing football. But the night before the operation, Ford and a friend went to the now-defunct Spanish Club and “spent hours drinking tequila and smoking long cigars,” he wrote. “I woke up the next morning with probably the worst hangover I ever had.”
He wrote that when he showed up at the hospital, the doctors and nurses looked at him and decided to postpone the operation.
It was Ford’s first experience with alcohol.
Ford was also a member of Michigamua, the elite senior society. He would continue to participate in the society as an alum, even during and after his presidency.
Ford turned down offers to play for the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions after graduation. Instead, he headed east to Yale University, where he was an assistant football coach and student at the law school.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Ford returned to Grand Rapids and opened a law firm. He was elected to Congress from Michigan’s 5th District in 1948, a seat he held until assuming the vice presidency.
Ford remained close to the University throughout his life.
He spoke at the University’s commencement ceremony in May 1974 and kicked off his re-election campaign in September 1976 in front of a crowd of more than 15,000 at Crisler Arena. He returned to Ann Arbor to speak at forums and conferences throughout his retirement.
Since 1977, Ford has held the title of adjunct political science professor. Ford’s presidential library is located on North Campus, and the University’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy is named for him.
“The Ford School community has been enriched by our connections with President Ford,” said Rebecca Blank, the school’s dean. “His visits here helped our students learn about the complexities of policymaking and understand the role of politics in our society. President Ford’s commitment to public service was a hallmark of his entire career.”
University President Mary Sue Coleman lauded Ford’s contributions to the campus community.
“I am deeply saddened by his death but grateful for his many years of inspiration to his University,” Coleman said in a written statement. “I have had the great privilege of knowing both President Ford and Mrs. Ford. An ardent Michigan football fan, President Ford was equally passionate about interacting with students on issues of public policy and world affairs.”
Coleman named her two cats Betty and Jerry after Ford and his wife.
Coleman also noted Ford’s support for the University’s use of affirmative action in its admissions decisions.
Ford published an op-ed piece in The New York Times in 1999 condemning two lawsuits filed against the University that challenged its use of affirmative action.
“At its core, affirmative action should try to offset past injustices by fashioning a campus population more truly reflective of modern America and our hopes for the future,” Ford wrote.
Ford’s stance on affirmative action was indicative of his moderate Republican leanings. Both he and his wife, Betty Ford, were supporters of abortion rights. In 1976, Ford faced a primary challenge from the more conservative Ronald Reagan, whom he defeated.
Ford did not attend a single social event at the White House during Reagan’s eight years in office.
He survived two assassination attempts in September 1975.
It was Ford who presided over the removal of the last American troops from Vietnam in April 1975. After the fall of Saigon, Ford called on Americans to put the nation’s first real military defeat behind them.
“I ask that we stop refighting the battles and the recriminations of the past,” he said in a speech at Tulane University. “I ask that we look now at what is right with America, at our possibilities and our potentialities for change and growth and achievement and sharing. I ask that we accept the responsibilities of leadership as a good neighbor to all peoples and the enemy of none.”
Ford echoed Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, saying “the time has come to look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the nation’s wounds, and to restore its health and its optimistic self-confidence.”
Ford is survived by his wife Betty, his daughter Susan and his sons Michael, John and Steven.
Plans for a memorial at the University have not yet been announced.