Remembering Jerry

January 2, 2007
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When the infamous staircase from the U.S. embassy in Saigon was obtained for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, there was a sharp division of opinion on whether the artifact was welcome in Grand Rapids, said Meijer Inc. co-chairman Hank Meijer, a member of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation’s board of trustees along with his father, Frederik Meijer, and Mark Murray, Meijer president.

The embassy staircase was used by hundreds fleeing during the fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War and the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia

“Members in Washington said this really represents a low point in American history,” Meijer said. “But President Ford said this is our history. That was a key moment. He didn’t try to polish up his White House years to put a gloss on them. That says something about President Ford’s humility and lack of ego … telling the story of the history of our country’s highs and lows was more important to him than polishing the image of Gerald Ford. I really admire that.”

  • Also remembering Grand Rapids’ favorite son last week was another foundation board member, Seymour Padnos, who helped launch Ford’s political career a half century ago.

With his brother Stuart, the 86-year-old Florida retiree delivered the OttawaCounty vote in Ford’s first congressional election in 1948 against incumbent U.S. Rep. Bartel Jonkman, a Zeeland native popular with the Hollander GOP.

“For a couple of upstarts to start promoting an unknown who was not Dutch in that area was not a particularly popular position,” said Padnos, who is retired from Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co. “My brother and I were just fresh out of the Army. Ford came sounding to us like a new voice out of the woods, so we challenged the local powers to take on that campaign.”

Padnos said they slapped campaign posters for Ford all over their fleet of trucks. The Padnos brothers so rankled the status quo that the mayor of Holland called their father, company founder Louis Padnos, to imply that the family’s scrap metal business would suffer if their campaigning continued.

“That didn’t deter my dad one bit,” he said. “Ford carried OttawaCounty, which shocked everybody. At the time, we thought we were challenging the world, our world, and I guess we were, in our way. None of us knew this man might ultimately become president of the United States.”

  • In 1995, Ford participated in a live online chat sponsored by the Scholastic publishing company, fielding dozens of questions from classrooms across the nation. A California third-grader asked how he made the decision to pardon President Richard Nixon, and if he ever regretted doing so.

Ford: “I have never regretted my decision to pardon Mr. Nixon. … In the first few weeks that I was president, I was facing a serious economic recession in the U.S., inflation was high, interest rates were going up, unemployment was getting worse. At the same time I was worried about the attitude of our allies in Europe and our enemies in the Soviet Union. These serious challenges required 100 percent of my time as president. At the same time, I was called upon to spend 25 percent of my time in the Oval Office listening to the Department of Justice and my White House Counsel as to what I should do with Mr. Nixon’s tapes and papers.

“I finally decided the only way to spend 100 percent of my time on the serious problems of the federal government and 30 million citizens was to get rid of the time spent on Mr. Nixon’s tapes and papers …”

  • For sitting as Commander-in-Chief during such a troubled time, Ford’s life was filled with laughter. He famously traded barbs with Bob Hope on the golf course, and one of the more unique artifacts in the museum collection is the head of a San Diego Chicken costume, worn by a White House correspondent as a press conference prank in 1976.

There was also Chevy Chase’s unflattering Saturday Night Live sketches, which Ford took in stride.

  • At the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, Commandant Frank Snarski said that a line of veterans had come to his office with requests to visit the museum this week. At press time, Snarski was not sure if that could be arranged, as the heightened security and traffic around the museum severely complicated the logistics of moving a busload of seniors.

“Our Michigan veterans have a huge sense of pride in that he was the only president from Michigan,” he said.

Among residents with hopes to attend the wake was William Merrill, an 83-year-old attorney recently retired from Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett after a debilitating stroke. Merrill received a visit earlier this year from an important figure in Ford’s life, Charles Colson, Nixon’s former chief counsel.Thirty-two years prior, Merrill, then Watergate Associate Special Prosecutor, had sent Colson and a crew of Nixon’s other henchmen to prison.

  • If not for an early warning from a TV news report, Grand Rapids residents Tim England and Rob Kent would have been quite surprised by the flood of TV crews that appeared on their front lawn soon after Wednesday morning.

“It looked like an invasion from space,” said England, executive chef at CalvinCollege, who, along with Kent, a manager at Erika’s Delicatessen, lives at

649 Union Ave. SE
. The two began renovating Ford’s historic boyhood home in 1991; it had sat vacant for 20 years, shifting ownership between the Veterans Administration, city and Ford museum.

By Thursday afternoon, England had participated in over three dozen interviews, and had been quoted from coast-to-coast.

From the sound of it, when the Business Journal rang that morning, the Ford house had become an impromptu media hospitality room, with England talking to The New York Times in the den, USA Today waiting on the coach and WOOD-TV 8 in a tent out back.

“By no means has it become an intrusion or a big hassle,” said England. “It’s really and truly our honor … we feel it’s our civic duty.”

After the home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, Ford sent the pair a letter a letter of thanks. In the following years, he occasionally stopped by to visit.    

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