Ford was low-key and local as retiree

Times Staff Writers

Richard Nixon wrote books to burnish his image. Jimmy Carter built a charitable foundation, brokered peace initiatives and monitored elections around the world. Bill Clinton has hit the speaking circuit, champions global AIDS awareness and joined his former adversary, George H.W. Bush, to raise money for tsunami and Hurricane Katrina victims.

Gerald Ford's ex-presidency was remarkable for its relatively low profile. He played golf in retirement. He skied. And he served on a number of corporate boards.

But Ford, who died Tuesday at the age of 93, also had a quiet influence in his adoptive hometowns near Palm Springs and Vail, Colo., two vacation spots where he and his wife, Betty, sank roots and became philanthropists.

After leaving the world's most powerful job, Ford was content to use his stature to bolster local causes -- a domestic violence shelter, a teenage outreach program and a children's museum. He also helped his wife found the internationally known substance-abuse rehabilitation center in Rancho Mirage that bears her name.

More than anything, when Ford traded the White House for the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, he embraced being a retiree -- something he considered doing before Nixon selected him to become vice president in the wake of Spiro T. Agnew's resignation.

"He was a normal guy," presidential scholar Douglas Brinkley said. "He never wanted to be president. He was never trying to get a legacy. He didn't try to spin history to make himself look better. The remarkable achievement of his post-presidency is that his ego was under control. He was a Midwestern Republican in retirement."

Gerald and Betty Ford often attended services at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, where a private funeral service will be held Friday, blending in with other parishioners as well as an ex-president could.

"They were unobtrusive," said Father Dan Rondeau, associate rector at St. Margaret's. "They looked like other married couples, holding hands, talking to each other. It was inspiring for the congregation to see them kneeling side by side."

Rondeau said the Fords were private, but gracious with their time.

"If people stopped them, they talked or posed for pictures," he said. "Enough people talked to them, so it always took them a while to get from the back to the front of the church."

Ford fell in love with the desert during vacations when he was in Congress.

After Ford lost the presidency to Carter in 1976, longtime friend Leonard K. Firestone, president of Firestone Tire & Rubber, persuaded him to move next door to him at the country club where he could pursue his passion for golf.

Steve Morton, past president of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic golf tournament in the Coachella Valley, in which Ford participated for 23 years, said Wednesday that it was a joy to play a round of golf with the former president.

"He didn't have agile feet and a fluid swing," Morton said, but he added that Ford was "competitive and a good putter."

After settling in, the Fords became involved in local nonprofit organizations and helped raise $5 million to build a Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert.

"I don't know when he would say no to anyone," said Lee Vanderbeck, the museum's executive director. "He was truly a humanitarian and he was interested in bettering people's lives."

When the Palm Desert City Council debated whether to provide money to the debt-ridden McCallum Theatre, Ford spoke out in support of the institution -- during the public comment period.

The council gave the museum $5 million.

Rancho Mirage Mayor Richard Kite said Ford became the most influential person in the Coachella Valley, where an elementary school and street bear his name.

But locals loved him, Kite said, for more than his financial generosity.

His average-guy countenance went over well in a desert playground that was also home to such outsized figures as Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.

"He was very approachable, and he was kind," said Kite, who served with Ford on the theater's board of directors. "He was the type of person, even though he was a past president, that didn't talk down to you. We were proud to call Gerald Ford one of our own."

On Wednesday, many in the desert valley mourned Ford's death. Flags flew at half-staff outside St. Margaret's, where Cindy Beck, 67, came to pray for Ford.

"He was a great man and everybody is hurting," she said. "But we will all come together and heal."

When he wasn't in the desert, Ford could be found in Colorado. An avid skier, he borrowed against his children's life insurance for a down payment on a vacation home in Vail in the 1960s.

He later moved to nearby Beaver Creek and remained active in community affairs until a few years ago, raising money for charities, leading the Fourth of July parade, lending his name to a golf tournament and lighting the town Christmas tree.

"I think he kind of let Betty take the spotlight after his presidency," said William Gudelunas, a professor of political science and American history at College of the Desert in Palm Springs.

"He was a guy that never really thought he'd be president. He wasn't overly absorbed by it and he was quite ready to have an athletic retirement," Gudelunas said.

Ford, a former football lineman at the University of Michigan, was portrayed by comedian Chevy Chase as a klutz on the show "Saturday Night Live." But Vail Mayor Rod Slifer said Ford was "quite a good skier."

"He couldn't have been too clumsy," Slifer said. "I don't think I ever saw a picture of him falling down."

In retirement, Ford also pursued something that eluded him during a lifetime of public service: wealth.

"He did what most every former president does. He wrote his memoirs and built a presidential library," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. "And if they're not rich, they try to make a lot of money."

Ford did so by serving on numerous corporate boards, including American Express, Primerica and many others that have since merged with other companies.

Some people were critical when the Fords were paid $200,000 to attended a 2001 charity benefit put on by an organizer who was later sent to prison for defrauding donors.

When he did speak out on public policy, Brinkley said, Ford remained a centrist Eisenhower Republican as the GOP moved to the right under President Reagan.

"He never became a foot soldier in the conservative movement," Brinkley said, noting Ford's support for affirmative action and stem cell research and his 1998 public call that President Clinton be censured, but not impeached, by the U.S. Senate.

"I have no personal or political agenda," Ford wrote in 1998. "But I do care, passionately, about rescuing the country I love from further turmoil or uncertainty."

A man who thought globally as president, however, will be remembered for a retirement in which he was inclined to act locally.

In 1987, the Fords put on sneakers for the first Desert AIDS Walk.

Gerald Ford continued to give time, money and, most important to organizers, his name to support the local Desert AIDS Project.

"He'd get a much better name for doing something global," said Warner Engdahl, former head of the project. "But he was very much a community person."

Father Robert G. Certain, rector at St. Margaret's, on Wednesday recalled Ford's favorite selection from Proverbs, Chapter 3, Verses 5 and 6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your path."

Ford often relied on the passage during trying times.

Certain said the Ford family told him that when Nixon was deciding whether Ford was going to be his vice president, Gerald and Betty Ford would repeat the two verses before going to bed.

Ford also placed his hand on the page of the Bible containing the passage during his inauguration as president.

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mike.anton@latimes.com

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

Times staff writers David McKibben and Ashley Powers contributed to this report.

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