Grand Rapids Jerry Ford One Of Us

January 2, 2007
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Grand Rapids has lost a giant! An icon! Among all the accolades accorded the 38th President of the United States, the most treasured are those from family, friends and neighbors.

Gerald R. Ford was one of us. He was our Congressman and champion during our formative years. He was our President during our adult stage. He remained our champion during our later lives. He may not have lived among us these past 35 years, but he was always there in our hearts, as we were in his.

We did not always refer to him as Gerald R. Ford or Mr. President. To many of us he was just "Jerry." It is one of the highest and most endearing compliments we can heap on him, and we will always retain that heritage.

Jerry was a man of outstanding character. He was crafted as much by the ethic of Grand Rapids as Grand Rapids was crafted by him. All the positive attributes we believe reflect the people of Grand Rapids are deeply embedded in the character and personality of our Jerry — honesty, generosity, humility, decency, loyalty, faith, morality, courage, integrity, family values and hard work.

Jerry was special to most of us. We each have our personal accounts of how he impacted our lives, and how he lifted Grand Rapids to world class status.

In the 180-year history of Grand Rapids, we are fortunate that we have nurtured and elevated two outstanding leaders to the national and international stage: Arthur Vandenberg and Gerald R. Ford. Both had their characters formed and shaped in Grand Rapids. Both were outstanding leaders on the world stage, and both adapted to their leadership roles in a changing world. Neither lost his character and values along the way.

But Jerry was our President. He was our leader. He brought the world to our community. And he always remained one of us.

My first recollection of Jerry was when I was 5 years old. My father was working for the Dutch government, and in that capacity he met many government officials, including newly elected Congressman Gerald R. Ford.

My parents often entertained at home. Among the guests was Jerry Ford. Mom would spend hours orchestrating the special Dutch buffet feast known as rijstafel (rice table). Jerry loved the various entrees, and always complimented Mom. He managed to get in a few hellos to us kids, as well. Back then we called the Fords Oom Jerry (Uncle Jerry) and Tante Betty (Aunt Betty). As "foreign kids," we referred to nearly every adult that came into our lives more than once as uncle or aunt.

A few years later, my parents decided they would like to stay in America. They discussed this with Jerry and without hesitation he did his "magic," as he did for so many immigrant families. He introduced a resolution that allowed us to "leave and re-enter the country" as legal immigrants under the Immigration Act. As so many did before us, we started on the path to naturalized citizenship.

This earned Jerry the undying loyalty of my parents, and eventually of all their children, as well. In junior high and high school, my sister and I were the twin terrors of Union High in terms of supporting Jerry Ford and any candidates he supported. In those years, we even set up candidate forums at Union in which Jerry Ford participated, as did his opponents. He always seemed to appreciate our enthusiasm.

During those early years, the words "Jerry Ford" and "congressman" were synonymous. Later when he rose to the vice-presidency in 1973, and then to the presidency in August 1974, the change was hard to get used to, especially the circumstances under which he ascended to those offices. The times were tumultuous.

While most reporters refer to the line in Jerry's inaugural address, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over …" as being significant, I have other favorite passages that showcase his humility, candor and common sense approach to life.

"I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots. So I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers."

"I am indebted to no man and only to one woman."

"… to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best I can for America."

"God helping me, I will not let you down."

And Jerry, you never let us down.

I also remember that cold, rainy day in November 1976 when Jerry returned to Grand Rapids to complete what we all thought would be one of the greatest turnarounds ever in a Presidential election. After the Nixon pardon, no one gave him a chance. He arrived in downtown exhausted, but he still spoke to us with what was left of his voice. When all the election results were in, and he fell just short, we were stunned. It was the only election he ever lost.

Is my personal account special? Certainly to me, but there are thousands of equally personal stories about the man from Grand Rapids who went out of his way to help constituents, friends, even total strangers without regard to whether they were Democrats or Republicans. He was steady; he was comfortable. We always knew where he stood. We could always count on him.

Historians will ultimately determine Jerry's place in the pantheon of our national leaders and heroes. To Grand Rapidians, he will always be our hero.

It is fitting that his final resting place will be Grand Rapids, in the city that nurtured him and sent him to Washington and the world. And he did not disappoint! His passing ends a life, but his time with us will never be forgotten.

Jerry, we will truly miss you. You were always one of us, and as one of us you will always remain.

Thank you for everything. Rest in peace.

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