Image via WikipediaTomorrow our nation will bid a final farewell to Betty Ford. She was our First Lady from August 9, 1974 till January 20, 1977. Not a long time, but an important time. When I learned of her passing on July 8th I thought back to that tumultuous period when we watched Watergate unfold. And then rather suddenly, Mr. Nixon resigned and Jerry and Betty Ford moved into the White House. I liked Betty, she was my mother’s peer. Betty was born April 8, 1918, 16 days after my mother was born. Don’t get me wrong, my mother didn’t personally know Betty Ford. But there is something about First Ladies that seems to capture our attention and we look for ways to identify with them, maybe because they make our White House a home.
Thinking back on my lifetime there have been 12 First Ladies: Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.
I was a baby for most of Bess Truman’s time in the White House; she was a little older than my paternal grandmother. I remember Mamie. I often wonder if my mother cut our bangs so that our hairdos would resemble Mamie's. I know in 1955 my mother-in-law wore her hair like Mamie Eisenhower. I also remember winning an essay contest for writing about President Eisenhower and my husband went to college with their grandson, David. There is too much to say about Jackie. We shared in her joy, every woman wanted have her natural good looks, we cried with her, we mourned with her and she taught us how to heal. Many years later I hosted her son, John, at our country inn. Lady Bird brought daughters into the White House. Linda Bird and Luci were my peers. We were able to share in their weddings. Pat Nixon’s real name was Thelma Catherine Ryan Nixon. To me Mrs. Nixon always seemed sad, but she glowed whenever she talked about her daughters and we enjoyed watching Tricia being married in the White House. I will come back to Betty. Rosalynn Carter was sweet and charming. I remember we were excited that a young girl, Amy, would be moving into the White House. In 1985, 26 years ago this summer, I had a private breakfast with President Carter in the Anchorage Airport. He was in the Alaska Airlines’ First Class Lounge waiting for Mrs. Carter to get ready to catch a flight. And the story goes on...Nancy, Barbara, Hillary, Laura and now Michelle. Each has let us into their life, just a little. But none will compare to Betty.
Six weeks after becoming our First Lady, Betty Ford underwent a radical mastectomy. Up until that time no one really talked about breast cancer, at least we didn’t talk aloud about it. We feared it. Betty Ford went public and perhaps saved many lives by her willingness to discuss it. Most forget that Happy Rockefeller, then Second Lady of the United States, underwent a mastectomy just two weeks following Mrs. Ford’s surgery.
Betty stood for much more. She worked tirelessly for women’s rights marching in Washington, D.C. for the Equal Rights Amendment. She was openly pro-choice. TIME magazine called her the country’s “Fighting First Lady”. In 1978 she and her family went public with her alcoholism and addiction to pain medicine. And once again, she stood tall and realized that the disease of addiction shadows almost every American family; she and her family took on the crusade to help people find recovery. In 1982 the Betty Ford Center opened in Rancho Mirage, CA. on the Eisenhower Medical Center Campus. I never met Mrs. Ford, but having worked in the addiction and recovery industry I did tour the Betty Ford Center. I met Jerry Moe, Vice President, National Director of Children's Programs for the Betty Ford Center and to this day he continues to deliver the long standing message of the Betty Ford Center... “serving patients, saving families”.
Tomorrow, July 12, 2011, services will be held to honor Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren Ford - Betty Ford. I understand that Rosalynn Carter will deliver one of the eulogies. I find comfort in this. Betty was a fighter, she was generous, offering each of us a part of herself. She taught us to talk about diseases that shatter a person’s life and a family’s life. She was anything but anonymous. She was brave and candid.
She wasn't afraid to dream!