Dallas For 58 years, they were a couple whose love story was the bedrock of their lives. So it was no surprise that Betty Ford herself broke the news to the nation that the 38th president, "Gerald Ford, our beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather," had died at age 93.
Betty Ford, 88, will return to the national spotlight today as several days of services for her husband begin with private prayers for the family at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif.
She was her husband's biggest fan, but when he was thrust into the White House in August 1974 by a quirk of history, she carved her own distinctive niche as first lady.
She was an overt feminist who worked for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and supported the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. She also encouraged her husband to appoint women to Cabinet-level posts and major ambassadorships.
Before her White House years, though, Betty Ford was a fairly anonymous congressional wife. She married Gerald Ford just before his first election to Congress in 1948. He was a Navy veteran-turned-lawyer in Grand Rapids, Mich.; she was a former Powers model and Martha Graham dancer, recently divorced.
Ford hadn't told his bride about his political ambitions, but she coped with the demands of Washington life. The Fords moved to Alexandria, Va., where they raised their four children during his career in Congress.
Though the Fords had agreed he wouldn't run for Congress again after 1974, Ford felt compelled to accept when he was asked to be Richard Nixon's vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned amid scandal. Betty Ford supported his decision, despite her deep ambivalence about remaining in public life.
Shortly after moving into the White House in August 1974, Betty Ford held a formal news conference, something no first lady had done since 1952. She announced her plans to support the arts and to help underprivileged and mentally challenged children. But she startled the press corps when she voiced support for the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe v. Wade.
The next public shock came when Ford learned she had breast cancer, six weeks after her husband took office. In her 1978 autobiography, "The Times of My Life," Ford wrote that "there had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration. So rather than continue this traditional silence about breast cancer, we felt we had to be very public."
Her candid disclosure and her willingness to discuss her mastectomy were unprecedented. The news sent millions of women for screenings that saved lives.
Ford later served as co-chairwoman in 1982 when Nancy Brinker formed the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
After she left the White House in 1977, Betty Ford disclosed that she had struggled with alcohol and drug dependencies and depression since 1970.
After a family intervention and hospital rehabilitation, she emerged with a new cause: championing drug and alcohol rehab services. In 1982, she co-founded the Betty Ford Center for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation in Rancho Mirage, Calif.