Mourners gather in Michigan for first lady Betty Ford

By Elizabeth Slowik

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich (Reuters) - A steady stream of visitors filed past the flower-covered casket of former first lady Betty Ford on Thursday morning, as mourners prepared to gather for her afternoon funeral and interment in her western Michigan hometown.

The remains of Ford -- the wife of former President Gerald R. Ford -- who died at age 93 in California on Friday, arrived in Grand Rapids on Wednesday following a service in California on Tuesday.

The former first lady will be interred next to her husband on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in downtown Grand Rapids.

Thursday would have been President Ford's 98th birthday. The family is expected to lay wreaths on his grave site as well. President Ford died in 2006.

As first lady, Betty Ford publicly tackled breast cancer and a dependence on alcohol and pain pills. She lent her name to two institutions, the Betty Ford Breast Care Services at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids and the Betty Ford Center in California.

The funeral will be held at Grace Episcopal Church in the suburb of East Grand Rapids. The first lady and President Ford were married at the church in 1948.

During the 2 p.m. service, Ford is to be eulogized by Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who previously was the director of the Ford museum.

Former President Bill Clinton and former first lady Barbara Bush are also expected to attend the service along with the Cheneys.

Those attending the repose were greeted by members of the Ford family, including sons Michael and Steven. They also received cards featuring Betty Ford's photo portrait on one side and an Emily Dickinson poem on the other.

The public left items at the foot of the museum's sign, such as candles, flowers and notes. One was an American flag with writing in the white stripes, thanking Ford for her various contributions.

"Thanks for teaching us all to be first ladies," the message read.

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. Over the years, the Fords lent their support to numerous fund-raising efforts in western Michigan.

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.

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

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.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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