When Gerald was 16-years-old and washing dishes in a diner in Grand Rapids, a stranger came in and asked if he was Lesley King. “No,” the teen replied. “I’m your father,” the man told him. Gerald had lost contact with his biological father, Lesley King. The man took Gerald outside, introduced him to his 2nd wife and their daughter, told him that he had a ranch in Wyoming, gave him $20, and disappeared again. Lesley’s first wife had been Dorothy Ford. She divorced him and 3 years later married Gerald R. Ford, Sr. who gave his name to Dorothy’s son. Gerald Ford went on to become the 38th President of the United States.
I read this intimate story when Ruth and I visited the the 5 Compass Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum at 303 Pearl Street, NW in Grand Rapids in August, 2013. Gerald Ford is the only President with 2. The other is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I learned while buying tickets that it’s basically a research library with no exhibits. In fact, it only has a small timeline for the visitors who have been given permission to use it for research purposes. If you want to learn about Ford’s Presidency, you must go to Grand Rapids, his hometown.
Grand Rapids Visitor’s Guide, the experience, called it, “…America’s most entertaining presidential museum.” I never understood why but discovered that it was the smallest, humblest, and most family oriented of the 9 Ruth and I have visited. This might be because Ford was the only President with an official Museum/Library who was never elected President. He ran but lost to Jimmy Carter most likely because he had pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford claimed that this legitimate Presidential act was necessary so that the United States could move forward, but a lot of voters didn’t buy that.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t successful. Eagle Scout Ford was a high school football star, honored World War II naval officer, and a Representative for Michigan’s 5th congressional district for almost 25 years before becoming Vice President and then President when Richard Nixon resigned.
The display area upstairs begins with a room showing the 1970s cultural revolution that Ford inherited. President for only 30 months, he also dealt with 12% inflation, an energy crisis, an assassination attempt, and the controversial issue of what to do about deserters and those who had evaded the draft during the Vietnam War. In one room I read actual letters sent to him that quietly showed the range of opinions and issues that a President must deal with. On the lighter side, he presided over the Nation’s Bicentennial celebration.
I did find Ford’s Museum very, very personal as I browsed through a family album about his early life, learned intimate details about his marriage, and read about his 4 children’s adult lives. Betty Ford, his beloved wife and a dynamite First Lady, had, like Dorothy Ford, an unsuccessful first marriage that lasted for 5 years. She met Jerry while waiting for her divorce to be finalized. By the next year, Jerry told Betty, “I want to marry you. But we can’t get married until next fall, and I can’t tell you why.” He planned to challenge a 5-term Congressman in a primary election and, apparently, didn’t want to have to answer questions about his personal life while campaigning. The questions came later.