‘He was one of us’ — President Gerald Ford laid to rest in his Michigan hometown

Published 7:38 pm Thursday, January 4, 2007

Gerald R. Ford’s sunset burial service capped the official mourning for the 38th president, whose casket traveled more than 2,700 miles from the California desert to the nation’s capital before reaching its final stop on a hill overlooking a river in his hometown.

Ford was laid to rest on the grounds of his presidential museum late Wednesday as thousands of people lined nearby streets and bridges and stood atop buildings to catch a glimpse of history.

The sunset service featured a 21-gun salute and a flyover of 21 F-15E fighter jets. Light applause broke out as one jet in a missing man formation suddenly flew straight up as its rear engine glowed.

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Capt. Bill Roberts, a spokesman for the Michigan National Guard, which assisted with the Ford events, said Wednesday evening that the president’s body had not yet been placed in the ground. He could not say exactly when it would happen.

The former president had earlier been remembered at Grace Episcopal Church as a man not afraid to laugh, make tough decisions or listen to the advice of his independent wife.

“You learn a lot about a man when you run against him for president, and you stand in his shoes and assume the responsibilities that he has borne so well,” said the late president’s successor, Jimmy Carter.

He described the close friendship they developed over the years. “I relished his sound advice,” Carter said as his wife, Rosalynn Carter, cried. “I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land.”

Ford’s widow, Betty, wiped away tears as she sat with the couple’s four children and more than 300 dignitaries and family friends, including Vice President Dick Cheney and golfing legend Jack Nicklaus, an honorary pallbearer.

“He was one of us,” said Ford’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. “And that made him special and needed in a dark and dangerous hour for our nation.

Ford, who became president after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, died Dec. 26 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at age 93. He lived in Grand Rapids as a boy and in the suburb of East Grand Rapids during his 25 years in the U.S. House.

Ceremonies were held last week in Southern California, near Ford’s retirement home. The mourning then shifted to the nation’s capital before his casket was returned for an 18-hour viewing Tuesday night and Wednesday at the museum.

The viewing had to be extended Wednesday until nearly noon so everyone in line could pay their respects. Some 57,000 mourners waited hours to file past the flag-draped casket during the night. Some stopped and made silent prayers.

“We’re here to honor him,” said Philip Bareham, of Lansing, whose parents were among Ford’s earliest supporters. Bareham, his wife and two children were the last people to pay their respects during the public viewing.

Afterward, the casket traveled in a motorcade from the museum in downtown Grand Rapids to the funeral service at Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids, then back to the museum.

Several thousand flag-waving mourners lined the roads under sunny skies and brisk winds during the procession. Many wore University of Michigan hats and sweat shirts to honor Ford, a star football player at the school who graduated with degrees in economics and political science in 1935.

Rumsfeld said the Navy is considering naming a new aircraft carrier after Ford, a Navy veteran. At the Pentagon, the Navy confirmed that it would make an official announcement “in a few weeks.”

“How fitting it would be that the name Gerald R. Ford will patrol the high seas for decades to come in defense of the nation he loved so much,” Rumsfeld said.

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