Celebrating Betty! April 8 is Betty Ford’s 100th birthday, the First Lady of Vail’s First Family | VailDaily.com

Celebrating Betty! April 8 is Betty Ford’s 100th birthday, the First Lady of Vail’s First Family

VAIL — If you called down to central casting for someone of strength, character, intelligence and compassion, they'd send back Betty Ford.

Sunday, April 8, is Betty Ford's 100th birthday. Take a moment, smile toward Heaven where she surely is, and wish her a happy birthday. She'll smile back.

In the "us" vs. "them" mentality that pervades so much of life, Betty Ford was one of "us," no matter who "us" is.

"She was a national treasure," Sheika Gramshammer said.

Greatest Generation's Greatest

Betty Ford transcended her time and her station.

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"She was put on stage, and an ordinary woman became an extraordinary First Lady," Gramshammer said.

Betty was not only a member of the Greatest Generation, she was a prime example of its moral courage.

More than 100,000 people have sought help through her Betty Ford Center in Palm Desert, Calif., Betty showing the way toward the light and out of the pit of addiction for those thousands and millions of others.

She earned both Time magazine's and Good Housekeeping's Woman of the Year awards. She was a professional dancer and model … a Sunday School teacher, a Cub Scout den mother and a mom.

It's easy to fall into writing and talking about Jerry and Betty instead of just Betty. But not once did Jerry deliver a speech that didn't include the phrase, "Betty and I …" his partner and occasional co-conspirator.

"Vote for Betty's Husband"

Their daughter Susan Ford Bales still has a presidential campaign button that asks us to "Vote for Betty's Husband."

Susan was 11 years old and Ted Kindle was Vail's mayor when Betty and Jerry cashed in their kids' life insurance policies for the down payment on a condo in The Lodge at Vail.

That's the way Jerry told it one day in the Vail Interfaith Chapel, smiling and stealing a glance at Betty.

They paid $52,000, a king's ransom on a congressman's salary in those days. They rented it most of the year, and used it during Christmas and congressional recesses.

"The times in the valley are really special to my family," Susan said. "Vail was a sleepy ski town. You could let your kids wander around town and didn't worry about them. It was the one time my dad did not work quite as much."

Jerry and Betty Ford did not come from wealth. They were born during the Great Depression and hung onto their money.

Like all kids, the Ford kids wanted TVs in their bedrooms. Their parents were having none of it. If the kids wanted to watch TV, they could come downstairs where the TV was. Susan recalled that in the California desert where Jerry and Betty lived part-time, they put up some of the world's first solar panels to generate electricity and heat their pool, because they were certainly not gong to buy electricity for something like that.

Betty's gardens

Helen Fritch came up with the idea for the Betty Ford Alpine Garden, and Betty embraced it.

"My mother was a fabulous gardener," Susan said. "She spent her weekend and free time in the garden. She didn't have manicured fingernails because she was always digging in the dirt."

In 2005, June Vanourek helped organize a celebration for Betty at the Alpine Gardens. It was one of the last times the Fords made it to a big public event in Vail.

"She actually saved lives. I don't know how many First Ladies you can say that about," Vanourek said at the time.

For 20 years Betty and Sheika and Betty celebrated their April birthdays together. The year Betty died, Sheika visited her old friend.

"Keep my garden blooming," Betty told her.

Western White House

Because she and Jerry liked it in Vail, the American viewing public saw Vail beamed into their living rooms nightly when reporters looked straight into a television camera and said, "Reporting from the Western White House in Vail, Colorado."

"My parents brought a lot of notoriety to the valley," Susan said.

Cabinet members came to Vail and brought their families. So did their Secret Service detail.

Before that, when Sheika traveled to New York on buying trips for their boutique, people would ask, "Where's Vail?"

After that, she'd hear, "Oh Vail! That's where President Ford is!"

"She was unforgettable in Vail," Sheika said. "How honored we are to have her and her husband in our lives."

Occasional Ground Zero

Betty fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and so much else. Sometimes she won, sometimes she didn't, but she always battled.

When Betty or Susan won a battle against the four Ford men in the Ford home, they tended to make sure the guys knew it.

"We were in a male dominated house. It was called survival. Sometimes when you won, you might rub it in a little," Susan said.

The Fords hosted the AEI World Forum, and part of the event was a reception on the porch of their Beaver Creek home.

Betty called Ceil Folz, who ran the Vail Valley Foundation at the time, to say it was about to rain and that shouldn't do the party. They couldn't fit all those people inside.

About that time, President Ford — the "I" in "Betty and I," came in asking, "What are you talking about? Everyone can go downstairs."

Betty said, "No they can't."

Jerry pointed out that he used to be president of the United States and leader of the free world, and that he could convince people to go downstairs.

Of course, everyone was upstairs through the entire party.

"When I'm right, I'm right," Betty smiled at her husband.

"It was very human, you could see it happening in any house, anywhere," Folz said at the time. "I loved their relationship. They were very much like a team. President Ford would always check with Betty."

All about Betty

Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer on April 8, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois, she was the third child and only daughter of William Bloomer Sr. and Hortense Neahr.

Her mother thought social graces were important, so in 1926 8-year-old Betty enrolled at Calla Travis Dance Studio in Grand Rapids. While still in high school, she opened her own dance school teaching children and adults.

Her father died when she was 16. Her mother supported the family as a real estate agent, which shaped Betty's views on equal pay and equality for women.

After graduating high school, she studied dance under legendary choreographer and dancer Martha Graham. To pay for it, she worked as a model for a Grand Rapids department store. In 1940, she joined Graham's auxiliary troupe in New York City, eventually performing in Carnegie Hall. She realized she was not going to be a premier dancer, so she migrated back to Grand Rapids, where some life happened, some good, some not.

Eventually, though, in 1947 she met 34-year-old attorney Gerald Ford, a U.S. Navy lieutenant who had returned from active duty in World War II to resume his law practice and run for U.S. Congress. They dated a year and married two weeks before the November 1948 election.

Their political life started in a whirlwind. He left their wedding rehearsal dinner early to make a campaign speech. The day after their wedding, they attended a political rally, a University of Michigan football game, and a speech by New York governor Thomas Dewey.

Jerry won the election three weeks later, the first of 13 successful campaigns, rising to House Minority Leader.

Betty Ford became First Lady on August 9, 1974, when President Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal. When Jerry called tell her, she responded, "Well, if you're president of the United States, why am I cooking dinner?"

She became well known for her frankness, a trait she had exhibited her entire life. When the Fords ascended to the White House, we paid attention.

She spoke openly about her breast cancer. She was diagnosed six weeks after her husband became president. After a family meeting, she decided to go public, inviting the media into her hospital room to photograph her in her robe.

The first lady was talking about breast cancer, so suddenly it was OK.

"Before I was ever out of the hospital, there were, on television, women checking in to have mammograms," she said at the Gerald Ford Museum in May 2001.

More than 10,000 letters, 500 telephone calls, more than 200 telegrams and dozens of floral arrangements poured into the White House.

She campaigned hard for the Equal Rights Amendment and legalizing abortion, telling Barbara Walters it was "time to bring abortion out of the back woods and into hospitals, where it belongs."

With that, "my reputation for candor was established," Ford wrote in her autobiography.

She danced to disco music at informal White House events.

She chatted on her CB radio under the handle, "First Mama."

She occasionally raised the hackles of some conservative Republicans, but the nation embraced her. Her approval rating reached 75 percent.

When Jerry lost to Jimmy Carter by a razor-thin margin of 1.7 million votes, Betty delivered his concession speech. He was suffering from laryngitis late in the campaign.

When she suffered a pinched nerve in 1964, her doctors prescribed opioid analgesics. After they left the White House her drinking and pain pill use increased. Family and friends staged an intervention in 1978. She was angry at first and called them "a bunch of monsters," but agreed to monitored detoxification.

She was admitted to the Long Beach Naval Hospital's Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Service on April Fools' Day 1978. Jerry never took another drink, either. He said he had been an "enabler," and would not be again.

Because it was Betty, she spoke openly about it. She helped establish the Betty Ford Center, dedicated to helping all people, but especially women, with chemical dependency.

Through that work she came to understand the connection between drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. She soon began to speak out for gay and lesbian rights in the workplace, and in support of same-sex marriage.

In 1987, she published "Betty: A Glad Awakening," about her treatment. She followed that in 2003 with "Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery."

Rehab did nothing to dampen her candor. In September after her initial treatment she declared she'd had more than five hours of cosmetic surgery — a little work around the eyes and tightening some skin around the neck. She had her hair lightened.

She looked fantastic.

She told us everything about it, except the name of the surgeon. So, of course, several surgeons took credit.

She told McCall's magazine that she and Jerry slept together in the White House, and she liked to have sex "as often as possible."

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, and later the Woodrow Wilson Award for public service.

She and Jerry were married 58 years and had four children: Michael, John, Steven, and Susan. When Jerry died on December 26, 2006, at 93-years old, Betty made the announcement.

Betty died of natural causes on July 8, 2011. She was buried in Grand Rapids beside Jerry on July 14, 2011, on what would have been his 98th birthday.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.