GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The life of former first lady Betty Ford was remembered Thursday as a triumph over sudden and unwanted fame, addiction and a role on the world stage that never really changed the Midwest one-time dancer and mother of four.
Ford, who died July 8 at 93, was eulogized as a loving wife and mother who balanced family life and her White House role, then openly battled alcoholism and breast cancer, founding the Betty Ford Center, which has helped thousands overcome addictions.
Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, spoke of the family’s sudden transitions as Gerald Ford was pulled into the roles of vice president and then president in wake of the Watergate scandal.
It took Betty Ford from suburban housewife to the White House and its global weight, Cheney said.
“Through it all, she kept her bearing,” Cheney said. “Across the years, she was the same candid and completely unpretentious woman.”
Cheney’s husband was Gerald Ford’s presidential chief of staff.
Dick Cheney also attended the service, along with former President Bill Clinton, former first lady Barbara Bush, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
The ceremony capped a weeklong journey back to Grand Rapids for the former first lady who jarred the Washington establishment — and especially fellow Republicans — in the late 1970s with her outspoken but not strident views supporting abortion rights and women’s rights, and then her own struggle with addiction.
It was a time when alcoholism was not openly discussed and when breast cancer was mentioned by hushed euphemisms.
“She had so many contributions, so many lives she changed for the better and even saved by her example and her effort,” Lynne Cheney said in her eulogy.
“She not only became her own woman, but showed many others how to do the same.”
The most poignant moment of the 90-minute church service was son Steven Ford’s remembrance of how his mother helped him overcome his alcoholism:
“She gave me one of the greatest gifts, and that’s how to surrender to God, and to accept the grace of God in my life. Truly in her arms I felt like the prodigal son coming home, and I felt God’s love through her.”
Ford said if his family had been a naval fleet — Gerald Ford served in the U.S. Navy — his father would have been an aircraft carrier, and his mother a hospital ship.
“She was the one with love and the comfort,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “She was the first one there to put her arms around you. When you celebrated a victory she was there, when you had a defeat, she was there to hold your hand.”
The service was televised, but its attendance limited to family and friends. The burial service was private.
But the event was a community affair. The Fords have long been a part of Grand Rapids’ self-identity, the couple viewed as examples of grace, strength, candor and commitment to public service.
Sisters Shirleen Smith, 69, and Geraldine Brown, 66, both of Grand Rapids, went to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on Thursday morning to view Betty Ford’s casket, then to the city’s east side to watch the motorcade head to the church.
“They were part of Grand Rapids’ family,” Smith said. “We were born here, too, and just want to pay our respects.”