Mourners welcome Betty Ford home to Grand Rapids

By Elizabeth Slowik

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich (Reuters) - Somber citizens, some holding American flags, lined the streets and watched on Wednesday as a motorcade returned the body of former first lady Betty Ford to her western Michigan hometown.

Ford, wife of the late President Gerald Ford, helped found a world-renowned substance abuse rehabilitation clinic that bears her name in Rancho Mirage, California. She died on Friday at the age of 93.

Ford was remembered for her activism and pioneering work for addicts at a memorial service in California on Tuesday that drew leading political lights of the past four decades. More are expected for a funeral on Thursday in Grand Rapids.

The former first lady's casket arrived at Gerald R. Ford International Airport from California on Wednesday evening. A motorcade of police motorcycles and cars preceded the hearse to the Gerald R. Ford Museum in downtown Grand Rapids.

Ford's casket, covered in a spray of pink, yellow and white flowers, was carried inside by military pallbearers. They were followed by the Fords' four children and their families.

Numerous local political and community leaders had arrived at the museum earlier for a ceremony that opened with remarks from Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

The U.S. Army Chorus sang a spiritual, "I've Done Made My Vow" and "Let There Be Peace on Earth" and the Reverend Stephen Holmgren of Grace Episcopal Church closed the ceremony.

The first lady and President Ford were married at the church and her funeral will be held there on Thursday afternoon.

After the funeral, Ford's body will be interred next to her husband's on the museum grounds overlooking the Grand River. President Ford died in 2006.

"I don't know whether it was Gerald and Betty Ford reflecting Grand Rapids or that Grand Rapids has grown to reflect them, who we are as a community, willing to sacrifice and to stand up for things that are right," Heartwell said earlier in an interview.


Shirley Heyboer, 68, who stood across the street from the museum to watch the motorcade with her daughter, said Ford's open battle with breast cancer was a turning point.

"When you had that, nobody talked about it," Heyboer said. "It was a silent disease. She brought that out in the open, and I think that was great."

Ford led early efforts to raise awareness of the battle against breast cancer after undergoing a mastectomy in 1974, less than two months after her husband succeeded the disgraced Richard Nixon as president.

Among those expected to attend Ford's funeral on Thursday are former President Bill Clinton, former first lady Barbara Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said Matt McLogan, spokesman for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.

Lynne Cheney, Richard Cheney's wife, and historian Richard Norton Smith are scheduled to deliver eulogies.

The Fords remained close to the hearts of Grand Rapids' populace, which Gerald Ford represented in Congress for nearly a quarter century starting in 1949.

While both Fords were born elsewhere, each moved to Grand Rapids as a toddler and grew up in the solidly Republican area.

They were married at Grace Episcopal Church in 1948. Local lore has Gerald Ford late for the wedding because he made a campaign stop on the way to the church.

Over the years, the Fords lent their support to numerous fund-raising efforts in western Michigan. Local hospital Spectrum Health hosts the Betty Ford Breast Health Center.

"The country felt strongly about her candor and courage as it related to chemical dependency and breast cancer," said Marty Allen, president emeritus of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.

"The community took pride in the fact that she was from this area," Allen said.

Ford, once dubbed the "fighting first lady" by Time magazine for her outspoken political views, was a vocal supporter of women's rights while her husband was president from 1974 to 1977.

(Additional reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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