Fords favorites in California home
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — When the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert was sinking into debt a few years ago, the City Council debated whether to approve a financial donation for it. During the meeting, the mayor asked for public comment, and a tall, graying figure rose from the audience.It was former president Gerald R. Ford.In an impromptu speech, the 38th president of the United States told the crowd that the theater was a jewel for the region to enjoy and preserve. The council’s response: a $5 million grant.Ford’s plea was an example of the hands-on attention the former president and his wife, Betty, have devoted to several charitable causes in the Coachella Valley, the desert oasis in Riverside County they have called home since leaving the White House in 1977. And the $5 million grant is typical of the respect he and Betty enjoy in the region.”There is nobody who is more revered in the valley than the Fords,” said Rancho Mirage Mayor Ron Meepos.Since moving from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, the Fords have helped open and fund such charitable endeavors as a domestic violence shelter, a children’s museum, a teenage outreach program and a bighorn sheep preserve.Betty Ford is best known for establishing the alcohol and drug treatment facility in Rancho Mirage that bears her name. It has treated nearly 60,000 people since opening in 1982.
Vail is home to the Gerald Ford Amphitheatre and Betty Ford Alpine Garden. Bipartisan supportAlthough Gerald Ford represented Grand Rapids, Mich., for 25 years in Congress, he and Betty, who also own a home in Beaver Creek, are considered hometown heroes in the Coachella Valley. An elementary school and a street bear the name of the former president. A bronze bust of Ford stares from the entrance of the Children’s Discovery Museum, a facility the Fords helped fund.”People here think of them as Mr. and Mrs. Coachella Valley,” said Bill Gudelunas, a professor of American history at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert.The Coachella Valley has long been a Republican stronghold. But even some local Democrats praise the former Republican president and his wife. “They raised funds for AIDS … when it wasn’t that fashionable,” said Fred Bilodeau, a Cathedral City resident and national leader of the Stonewall Democrats.
The Fords’ history of charitable work is not without blemishes.In 2001, the Fords attended a benefit to raise money for 18 charities, including Cure Autism Now and the Starlight Children’s Foundation. But some of the celebrities who attended were angered to learn later that the Fords were paid $200,000 for their appearance. The organizer of the event, Aaron Tonken, was convicted and sentenced last year to five years in prison for defrauding donors and underwriters of star-studded charity galas.Prosecutors say Tonken drained millions of dollars that were intended for Hollywood charities and directed huge amounts to pay celebrities such as Ford to appear at his events.Penny Circle, Ford’s chief of staff, said the couple didn’t ask for the $200,000 payment and attended only because they thought the event was a reputable benefit.In recent years, the couple has cut back on their philanthropic endeavors, partly because of Ford’s age and bouts of illness. He is 91 and Betty is 86. Recently they have been in good health, Circle said.The couple rarely grant interviews, opting for a life away from the political spotlight. They declined to comment for this story.Betty Ford has handed the reigns of her clinic to her daughter, Susan Ford Bales, and will continue to hold the title of life chairman.
Likes it ‘low key’The Coachella Valley flourished in the 1950s and ’60s as the playground for celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Kirk Douglas. The region was known for its country clubs, lush golf courses and upscale living.When Ford was in Congress, he and Betty often vacationed in the desert. After he lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ford’s longtime friend Leonard Firestone, president of Firestone Tire & Rubber, persuaded him to move next door to him at the Thunderbird Country Club.Shortly after arriving in the Coachella Valley, the Fords dedicated themselves to several local charities. They have attended meetings and fund-raisers and recruited friends to participate in local benefits.In 1987, the couple put on sneakers for the first Desert AIDS Walk, a fund-raiser benefiting people living with AIDS and HIV.”It showed the courage that they had, because in the ’80s people were not too friendly toward AIDS projects,” said Warner Engdahl, head of the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs.In 1995, Gerald Ford teamed with philanthropist Leonore Annenberg to raise $5 million to replace the aging Children’s Discovery Museum in Rancho Mirage with a modern facility.”They are very personable,” said Lee Vanderbeck, the museum’s executive director. “You know they care.”
The couple sometimes shun publicity.About eight years ago, Betty Ford invited a group of students from Gerald R. Ford Elementary School in Indian Wells to interview her at the Ford home. After the children sat down, the former first lady called on her husband to answer a few questions. The interview lasted nearly an hour, and afterward the couple posed for a photo with the class. “He didn’t want any press,” Kim McLaughlin, principal of the school, said of Ford. “He wanted it low-key, just him and Betty and the kids.”Ford, the only president never to have won a national election, was appointed in 1973 by former President Nixon to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned amid scandal. A year later, Nixon resigned during the Watergate controversy, making Ford the 38th president.Gudelunas, the history professor, recounts an incident several years ago when he was a guest on a local radio talk show. He was comparing then presidential candidate Al Gore with Ford. He noted that Gore was a senator, while Ford was never elected to any office higher than congressman.The factual comment incited angry calls, criticizing the professor for daring to impugn Ford’s name.Said Gudelunas: “The people out here absolutely have him on a pedestal.”Vail, Colorado