Above all else, Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of the United States, was a Michigan man. And damn proud of it, too.
He was the most valuable player (as a center) on the 1934 University of Michigan Wolverine squad, one that charitably can be called the worst in school history. But much of Ford’s life reflected that – being the best person in a bad situation. It summed up his Presidency as being the only American never to be elected vice president or president, yet serving in both capacities.
He oversaw the end of the Vietnam War (although to many it lacked any measure of satisfaction), pardoned Richard Nixon is the name of unified healing (although to many it lacked the proper closure and truthfulness to that entire episode) and battled a wave of inflation that would remain at high tide for the rest of the decade.
He lost his effort to win voters’ approval in 1976 to a relatively unknown Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, but it also can be documented as perhaps the last American presidential election that did not produce mass animosity and vitriolic verbiage.
Ford served his hometown of Grand Rapids for 25 years before the fickle finger of fate anointed him to move to historic heights.
People made fun of his alleged klutziness, bumping into things and falling on occasion, but he also survived two assassination attempts, one by former Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. His golfing foibles were legendary but that only meant he was ordinary at things like the rest of us. When our drives go awry, they hit squirrels; his struck spectators lined up … often to be hit.
But in Ann Arbor, he was well-loved as a strong supporter of his university. Until he moved into the White House, Ford was a regular spectator of Michigan football at Michigan Stadium, just one of 105,000 every home game Saturday. Without luxury boxes and other expensive isolation booths, all fans were equal among the masses.
On occasion, Ford would be seen in the press box, greeting university officials and other old friends. Obviously, when he became President, that kind of folksiness ceased – probably much to Ford’s dislike.
His friends called him “Jerry,” and he insisted on it, even as President … with those he considered friends. While I was working for the U-M Sports Information Department, headed by SID Will Perry, I answered the office phone one morning during the 1975 season, and was told, “This is the White House calling; please hold …”
I gulped slightly and then a voice came on the line.
“Hi, is Will (Perry) there? This is Jerry.” Yes, it was the President of the United States and all I could say, “Yes, sire, I’ll transfer you.”
Among the many Michigan groups was a semi-secret society called Michigauma, consisting of the top U-M athletes and other connected with the athletic department (coaches, sports writers, trainers, etc.). Initiations of a selected group of athletes were held in public, but meetings were not disclosed to anyone.
Once a year, a major blowout reunion was held, also in secrecy, and always among the regulars was (reportedly) Jerry Ford, Class of 1935 – 1934 football MVP.
For the Michigan family, this is the second major death in the last 45 days. Arguably, a former President makes you the school’s most important alumni. U-M has had men become President, walk on the moon, win multiple Super Bowls and lead many of the nation’s biggest industries.
Gerald Ford was honored to be President; he loved being a Wolverine.