Late president’s ties to Kansas, Lawrence were many and varied

Gerald Ford was a favorite son of the Midwest

President Ford was a big hit in Kansas.

Aside from the fact that he selected Kansas Sen. Bob Dole to be his vice presidential running mate in 1976, Ford seemed to embody the Midwestern values shared by many Kansans.

“He always made something positive out of everything,” said Nelson Krueger, a Lawrence resident and former Dole aide.

Krueger introduced Ford at a 1974 fundraiser attended by several hundred Johnson County Republicans.

“He was a coalition builder, and when he talked to you he looked right at you,” Krueger said of the former president, who died Tuesday at age 93.

Ford became president in August 1974 after President Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal.

Six months later, Ford visited Topeka, on Feb. 11, 1975, to speak to a joint session of the state Legislature and then to meet with 10 Midwestern governors at Cedar Crest to discuss budget and energy issues.

A crowd of between 6,000 and 12,000 people, depending on the news report, braved a 12-degree wind chill to see Ford as he arrived at the Capitol.

“This crowd is unbelievable,” Ford said as he addressed the throng. He said he was told that the event was the first time that Topeka’s three high school bands played together. “That kind of unity is what we need in America today.”

Dole, Sebelius express condolences

Two Kansas dignitaries, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan, expressed condolences Wednesday.
“President Ford can be described in three words: a good man,” said Dole, who was on the presidential ticket with Ford in 1976. “He was a friend to everyone who met him. He had no enemies. Just a good, decent human being. He led the effort to heal the nation in the mid-1970s, by putting the country’s interests ahead of his own.”
Sebelius ordered Kansas flags to be flown at half-staff through Jan. 25.
“President Ford was called on by our nation to heal, serve and lead,” Sebelius said in a statement released by her office. “He did so with integrity and courage. I encourage all Kansans to join our nation in remembering his legacy and in praying for his family.”

During his speech to the Kansas Legislature, Ford announced the immediate release of $2 billion in highway funds and ordered a rebate program to help farmers with high energy costs.

The following year, Ford selected Dole as his running mate, and on Aug. 20, 1976, the two visited Dole’s hometown of Russell, Kan., and spoke to a crowd of supporters on the courthouse grounds.

During his speech, Ford named a number of former and then current political leaders from Kansas, and said, “What I’m really saying is you not only produce cattle and wheat and energy, but doggone it, you produce great people.”

Honoring Ford

In 2003, Ford had accepted an invitation to attend the dedication of KU’s Dole Institute of Politics, but he had to cancel because of health issues.

The institute has set up a display to honor Ford, along with a memorial registry that will be sent to the Ford family.

The public will be able to see the display and sign the book from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday though Jan. 26. The institute will be closed New Year’s Day.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of former President Gerald Ford,” said Bill Lacy, director of the Dole Institute. “Our condolences go out to Mrs. Ford and the family.”

Lacy said Ford was a healer who put the country ahead of his own career.

The institute’s first permanent director, Richard Norton Smith, was a director of the Ford Presidential Library.

KU’s University Press of Kansas has published two books about the Ford family. John Robert Greene, a professor of history and communications at Cazenovia College, wrote “The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford” in 1994 and “Betty Ford: Candor and Courage in the White House” in 2004.

1978: KU visit

Ford won over a number of faculty and students with his Oct. 22, 1978, visit to the Kansas University campus.

The visit – part of a national tour of colleges sponsored by the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute – included lectures to three classes on the economy and politics and speeches at dedication ceremonies for Green Hall, KU’s law school.

“I remember him as being a very warm, sensitive, interested human being,” said Archie Dykes, KU’s chancellor from 1973 to 1980.

Dykes recalled waiting in a classroom with Ford before one of the former president’s speaking engagements. Ford killed the time by drawing funny cartoons on the chalkboard.

“He was very friendly, very warm, very easy to talk with,” said Dykes, who couldn’t recall what the cartoons depicted.

Francis Heller, KU professor emeritus of law and political science, recalled several points about Ford’s visit, including the president’s special requests.

“The Secret Service came around and said: ‘The president likes to have a bourbon and water before lunch,'” Heller said. “In those days and to this day, you can get wine and beer at social functions in the Union, but you can’t serve scotch or bourbon.”

The president did get his wish, though, Heller said.

Reggie Robinson, CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, was student body vice president at the time. Ford asked to meet with student leaders and a group gathered for an informal talk.

Robinson said the former president tried to put the nervous students at ease. They passed over serious talk, opting to chat about sports and other light topics.

“He really seemed to be trying to make us feel comfortable,” Robinson said.

Bill Tuttle, KU professor of American studies, had a different impression of Ford after the visit.

“I had, of course, been overly influenced by Chevy Chase’s depiction of Ford on ‘Saturday Night Live,'” Tuttle said. “I didn’t expect much in the way of intelligence or graciousness and I was really quite impressed.”

1990: Baker visit

Dan Lambert, president emeritus of Baker University, talked Wednesday about a visit Ford made to Baker in 1990.

Ford’s visit coincided with the Meeting for Peace visit to Lawrence of a Soviet delegation. Many of those visitors attend the Baker event.

Ford, who was preparing to have knee surgery, was very accommodating, good with students and with the press, Lambert said.

Lambert said he and Don Parker, Baker’s chairman of the board at the time, had about 20 minutes alone with the former president.

“We had an opportunity to ask questions that, I’m sure, were asked of him 100,000 times,” Lambert said.

Lambert, a Vietnam veteran, asked Ford if he thought anything good came out of that conflict.

“His response didn’t surprise me, but I was pleased to hear it,” Lambert said. “He said it was one of the things that let it be known that we were not going to give up and that the Soviet bloc was going to have to be able to keep up with us.”

Lambert said he also privately quizzed Ford about the Nixon pardon.

Ford told him, “even with the political consequences, he felt it was the right thing to do for the country and he was willing to risk it. And I think he never looked back.”

History has proven Ford’s decision was correct, Lambert said.

“None of us can know what would have happened if he had failed to pardon Nixon,” Lambert said. “It’s likely Ford would have been elected president in 1976. But no one knows what kind of rancor would continue if Nixon had been prosecuted for his role in Watergate.”

Lambert said Ford was “Trumanesque” in “his candor and his willingness to stand by his decisions.”

“He was, in my judgment, a great man,” Lambert said.

Ford, the husband

Carol Wright, Lawrence, said she met Ford in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1978.

Wright, who at the time was president of the Direct Selling Association, introduced Ford at a DSA convention and chatted with him during a cocktail party before his speech.

“I thought he was a very nice, honest, straightforward man,” Wright said. “He tended to be a little shy, but he was quite nice. We had a nice conversation about Betty, I remember that.”

Wright said she had been impressed with Ford’s wife and how she was a role model for other women who had breast cancer and encouraged women to be checked regularly for it.

“I think millions of women, as a result, went to get a mammogram,” Wright said. “And I thought it was very good of her to do at that time in the 1970s.”

Wright said Betty Ford also was an inspiration to others who suffered from addictions.

“I thought she was very forthcoming about her pill addiction to painkillers and her alcoholism,” Wright said. “And as a result, she not only conquered it, she started the clinic out in California, the Betty Ford Clinic, which has helped thousands of people over the years.”

Wright said the Fords had a good marriage.

“It was pretty apparent they were very close,” she said.

Wright said Ford was the type of upstanding president that the country needed at the time.

“It was a healing situation after what we’d been through with Nixon,” she said.