RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (Los Angeles Times) Richard Nixon wrote books to burnish his image. Jimmy Carter built a charitable foundation, brokered peace initiatives and monitored elections. Bill Clinton 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 Fords ex-presidency was remarkable for its low profile. He played golf in retirement. He skied. And he served on a number of corporate boards.But Ford, who died Tuesday at 93, also had a quiet influence in his adoptive hometowns near Palm Springs and Vail, two vacation spots where he and his wife, Betty, sank roots and became active philanthropists.Ford was content to use his stature to bolster local causes a domestic violence shelter, a teenage outreach program, a childrens 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 tapped him to become vice president in the wake of Spiro Agnews 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 didnt try to spin history to make himself look better. The remarkable achievement of his post-presidency is that his ego was under control.
Ford and his wife Betty often attended services at St. Margarets 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.Father Dan Rondeau, associate rector at St. Margarets, 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 awhile 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 Firestone, president of Firestone Tire & Rubber, persuaded Ford 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 Desert Classic golf tournament in Rancho Mirage, which Ford played in for 23 years, said it was a joy to play a round a golf with the former president.He didnt have agile feet and a fluid swing, Morton said, but he added that Ford was a competitive and a good putter.After settling in, the Fords got involved in local nonprofits, including helping to raise $5 million to build a Childrens Discovery Museum of the Desert.I dont know when he would say no to anyone, said Lee Vanderbeck, the museums executive director. He was truly a humanitarian, and he was interested in bettering peoples lives.Locals loved him, Rancho Mirage Mayor Richard Kite said, for more than his financial generosity. His average-guy countenance went over well in a desert playground that was home to such outsized figures such as Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.He was very approachable, and he was kind, Kite said. He was the type of person, even though he was a past president, that didnt talk down to you. We were proud to call Gerald Ford one of our own.
On Wednesday, many in the desert valley mourned Fords death. Flags stood at half staff outside St. Margarets church, 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 wasnt in the desert, Ford could be found in Colorado. An avid skier, he borrowed against his childrens 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 Desert in Palm Springs. He was a guy that never really thought hed be president. He wasnt overly absorbed by it and he was quite ready to have an athletic retirement.A man who thought globally as president 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.Hed 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.Times staff writers David McKibben and Ashley Powers contributed to this report.