Betty Ford: A Remarkable Life

Special to the DailyBetty Ford with Marge Burdick, who says the former first lady "turns bad into good."

There is an organization that has been operating covertly since 1935 and its reach has spread throughout the world. It has over two million members who pursue their single goal without the aid of formal hierarchies or government, complex mission statements or P.R. campaigns.

They save lives, restore families, and rebuild futures, and we do not know who they are. They are in every state, every city, and every town. They call themselves Friends of Bill W. They call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous, but they do not call themselves cured. Their struggle is fought one day at a time, days building upon days, until a life is won. We don’t know who they are, unless they happen to be extraordinarily open about their personal demons, or unless they are married to the leader of the free world. With her permission, we introduce you to one of AA’s members: Betty Ford.

The history of Betty Ford’s attendance at Vail Valley AA meetings is understandably shrouded in more than a little mystery. Nonetheless, she has been a prominent supporter of the AA program here. She has consistently expressed her belief in the value of AA’s twelve steps and asked for volunteers from AA to be among the first patients at the Betty Ford Center, helping the newly formed staff practice their techniques.

Today, the Betty Ford Center consists of nine buildings on a twenty acre campus with over 200 patients a day receiving treatment in the inpatient, outpatient, residential, family and children’s programs. Over 67,000 men and women from around the world have sought and received help there.

Beth Slifer, of Slifer Designs, says, Betty Ford “made it acceptable for people to recognize their addictions and seek help. Her leadership influenced other celebrities to take similar public roles in helping victims seek medical assistance openly and without shame in previously misunderstood areas.” Adds longtime friend Donna Giordano, “I have seen Hollywood stars come up to her and say, ‘You’ve saved my life.'”

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Betty was reluctant at first to put her name on an addiction hospital. Explains John Schwarzlose, CEO of the Betty Ford Center, “As a newly recovered alcoholic herself, the added pressure of allowing the use of her name was almost too much. What finally persuaded her was the fact her name would make it seem okay to ask for help.”

Betty well remembers her first group therapy sessions at the Long Beach Naval Hospital before she had acknowledged her alcoholism. She wrote, “In those rooms, amidst a sea of Styrofoam coffee cups and a fog of cigarette smoke, I began to understand that I did indeed share those women’s disease. And their hopes.” Betty was determined that her center would be a special place for women. Of the 67,000 people treated by the Betty Ford Center, half have been women and the Center was one of the first addiction hospitals to do gender specific treatment.

After she left Long Beach, Betty came to Vail for a summer visit. There she met and befriended a group of women from Denver who were celebrating as much as eight years of sobriety. They have remained friends to this day and call themselves the Denver Dolls, enjoying much more in their time together than AA meetings. Betty and the Denver Dolls were among the earliest participants in AA in Vail and she has watched it evolve. In her 1987 book, Betty: A Glad Awakening, Betty pointed out that, “eight years ago there was only one AA meeting a week in Vail. Now there are nineteen…. And when I see that, I’m happy so many more people are finding help.”

A few years ago, some Vail locals decided to hold an open AA meeting in Betty’s honor. The first meeting was held December 31st, traditionally a day for anticipating New Year’s Eve hangovers, and over 200 people attended to show their support for the work Betty Ford was doing. Since then, that open meeting has continued on the last day of every year, and is now held at the Beaver Creek Chapel. Betty can be counted upon to attend and bring cookies though her presence would be enough. As Schwarzlose says when speaking of alumni celebrations at the Center, “Greeting Mrs. Ford is one of the things that keeps them coming back.”

Liz Meyer, owner with husband Luc of the Left Bank Restaurant in Vail, has been a friend of the Fords since Jerry was a congressman from Michigan and she was witness to Betty’s transformation. “The way she was able to overcome her own problems made her an inspiration and her attitude has rubbed off on many people,” observes Liz. As a restaurateur, Liz also relishes the effect that

Betty’s recovery had on her appetite. She notes Luc, the restaurant’s legendary chef, “always tried to prepare special things for them,” and it pleased them both to see Betty enjoying her meals with increased zest. In her 1987 memoir, Betty also printed a quote from good friend Sheika Gramshammer, owner with husband Pepi, of Vail Village’s Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer. Sheika said, “It was like you opened the door, and the sunshine came in, and the warmth with the sunshine…her identity came through.”

Adds Marge Burdick, one of Vail’s earliest citizens and a friend of the Fords for more than 40 years, “Betty doesn’t want to hurt anybody, so she handles everything with grace. She is a wonderful friend who has added much more happiness to my life. The Betty Ford Center has made a huge difference in the lives of thousands. Betty Ford is resilient and turns bad into good.”

“Today the Betty Ford Center is a beacon of hope for alcoholics, addicts, and their loved ones from all over the world,” says John Schwarzlose, “It is Betty Ford’s dream come true. Her inspiration and example will keep its fires burning for many more years.”

It will be the mark of our progress as a species when our society can applaud rather than chastise Herculean efforts to overcome an addiction, be it to food, gambling, tobacco, drugs, or alcohol. Imagine then, going to an AA meeting, perhaps wondering why your life brought you there, questioning whether you ought to be there, or whether you can succeed where others have or have not, and then in walks Betty Ford. She is the First Lady, prettier in person, without pretensions or airs, telling you that you have the strength, telling you that she has walked the same path. She might bring a plate of cookies or a bowl of potato salad and you wonder if she made them herself. She shares her story and herself and afterwards you know that you will be one of those who make it.

Vail Colorado

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