WASHINGTON – Thousands gathered here Saturday to say goodbye to Gerald Ford, who first arrived in this city 57 years ago as the congressman from Grand Rapids, a seat he would hold until he was appointed vice president in 1973.

Sarah Royce
Former President Gerald Ford at a Humor and the Presidency Conference in Grand Rapids in 1986. (File photo by STEVE KAGAN)

Most weren’t there because they were star-struck by Ford. He was not a larger-than-life leader like Ronald Reagan. Instead, many said they came out of a respect for the common, decent man who had mended a nation reeling from scandal and war.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Shari McLellan, a resident of Waterford who had been in Washington on vacation with her husband, Don McLellan.

“Whoever holds this position, or has held this position, deserves the respect of everyone,” Don McLellan said.

Ford’s body traveled from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland through Alexandria, Va., where he lived during his 30 years in Congress, and finally to the Capitol Saturday evening in a simple black hearse.

It stopped only at the World War II Memorial to commemorate the University alum’s service in the Navy.

As darkness fell on the capital before the procession, a crowd gathered at the World War II Memorial. There, aging veterans of wars stood with the most recent additions to their ranks in a special section. They were joined by Boy Scouts. Ford was the only president to reach Eagle Scout, the group’s highest rank.

Later, when the motorcade paused there, a Navy sailor came forward and blew three notes on a metal boatswain’s pipe – a tradition called “Piping Ashore,” used to honor naval service.

The half of the memorial commemorating the war’s Pacific theater – where Ford served – was illuminated. The half commemorating the Atlantic was not.

After stopping at the memorial, the procession turned down Constitution Avenue, a long, wide street that had been cleared of traffic. It rolled past the White House, the Washington Monument, past museums and cabinet agencies. It rolled past the Canadian Embassy, where a banner was hung with a bilingual goodbye for Ford.

“Farewell friend” was printed just above “Adieu ami.”

Ford’s wife Betty rode in a limousine behind the car carrying her husband’s body.

A Maryland resident, Patrick Puffy, said he would remember Mrs. Ford along with her husband.

“She was definitely a trendsetter,” he said.

Betty Ford turned heads as first lady with her frank talk about premarital sex, marijuana use and abortion.

Later, she was treated for alcoholism and drug addiction after being prescribed painkillers to treat a back ailment. Her openness about her addiction was considered groundbreaking.

After passing thousands of people gathered on sidewalks, the procession reached the east front of Capitol, where it was met by a group of Ford’s friends and colleagues. Among them were former Senate majority leader and Ford running mate Bob Dole, Rep. John Dingell, whose district includes Ann Arbor, and former Citigroup chief Sanford Weill, the namesake of the new home of the University’s Ford School of Public Policy.

Later, at the state funeral in the Capitol Rotunda, House Speaker Dennis Hastert harkened back to Ford’s tenure as a center on the Michigan football team in the 1930s.

“President Ford was one of the few men in history who did not need great events to make him great,” he said “On the football field, in the halls of Congress and in the Oval Office, there was always something big and solid – always something big and solid and good – in Gerald Ford.”

Outside the Capitol, thousands of people lined up to view the casket.

Among them was Trey Stevens, who graduated from the University’s Business School in 1988. Stevens called his fellow alum “one of the greatest men who has been president of the United States.”

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