Locals recall Ford as valuable ally | VailDaily.com

Locals recall Ford as valuable ally

Scott N. Miller
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyGerald and Betty Ford in Vail with Sophia Golovkina, center, of the Bolshoi Ballet.

EAGLE COUNTY ” Lots of locals knew Gerald Ford, some better than others. But none had an unkind word about him. Following are some reflections and anecdotes from some of the people contacted both before, and after, Ford’s death.

Marie-Claire and Walter Moritz felt a special connection to the Fords. The Moritzes founded LaTour Restaurant in Vail. When the Fords were in the valley in summer, they would come for dinner on July 14 ” Ford’s birthday and Bastille Day, the French independence day.

That was always a big day at LaTour, with most of the local French people coming in for dinner, wine and song.

“President Ford would always try to sing the French songs,” Marie-Claire Moritz said. “He was so cute when he’d try to sing the French songs.”

When Walter Moritz died in 1999, the Fords attended the funeral.

“They came with Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer,” Moritz said. “They sat in the front row of the chapel and they made my three sons feel so special.

“They made a point to come on Dec. 20, when everyone is so busy,” she said. “It was really something.”

Phil Smiley and his family bought a home lot next door to the Fords before Beaver Creek was finished. Unlike the Fords, the Smiley’s then had a child in grade school, who ran into some trouble with the Secret Service.

One winter day, Smiley’s son, then just 10, accidentally skied through the trees and ended up in the Fords’ back yard. Secret Service officers nabbed the boy, talked to him for a few minutes, then called Smiley.

“He didn’t exactly look like a terrorist,” he said.

Having an around-the-clock security team next door took some getting used to, but that didn’t stop the families from becoming pretty close.

“We’d go over on his birthday,” Smiley said. “I’d bring his favorite dessert, a strawberry-rhubarb pie. I’d have a local chef make it, and he always enjoyed it.”

The Smileys and others were also invited over when Ford’s alma mater, the University of Michigan, played in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

“That happened several times over the years,” Smiley said. “Win or lose, he was always a good sport.”

The Fords were more than just good-time friends, Smiley said.

“Betty was very kind to my wife when she was diagnosed with breast cancer,” he said. “They’re just wonderful people.”

As Betty Ford lent her name to local and national charities and causes, Ford was often introduced as “Betty Ford’s husband,” Smiley said.

“He always got a kick out of that.”

When Gerald Ford agreed to be on the board of a local nonprofit, he was more than a figurehead.

“He’s been a very active board member,” Vail Valley Foundation Director Ceil Folz said. “He was up to speed on foundation activities, and until last year, made almost every board meeting.

“He asks tough questions at board meetings,” Folz said. And, she added, Ford set the budget policy the foundation follows to this day, in which the foundation spends only the money it raises from year to year.

While Ford’s name is well-known through the valley, and attached to a park and amphitheater in Vail, Folz said he never sought those honors.

“President Ford recognized that people want to recognize him, and he’ll do that in the name of a good cause,” Folz said. “But he’d always ask if someone else didn’t deserve the honor. Both of them are very humble.”

Folz said she was always struck by Ford’s “regular guy” nature.

“Several years ago the Firestones had sold their house next to (Ford’s),” Folz said. “I went up there to brief him on the World Forum and all he wanted to talk about was the new neighbors, like any of us would want to know. He’s very much an everyman.”

Even as a former president, Ford stayed connected to the country’s political establishment.

“We’d have meetings at his house, and he’d get a buzz, ‘The White House is on the phone,'” John Horan-Kates said. “He was totally wired into what was going on.”

Even with his heavy-hitting connections, though, Ford was always easy to talk to.

“I didn’t know what to expect from a former president of the United States,” Horan-Kates said. “But he was always approachable, and easy to communicate with.”

While Ford was a career politician, politics wasn’t his sole interest.

Dick Hauserman, one of the early investors in Vail, played quite a bit of golf with Ford in the 1980s and ’90s.

“We wouldn’t talk about politics,” Hauserman said. “We’d talk football.”

Ford was a great football player at the University of Michigan. Hauserman played for Western Reserve University in Ohio a couple of years behind Ford.

“We knew a lot of the same players,” Hauserman said. “There weren’t a lot of people who could have that conversation.”

For one of Vail’s anniversary celebrations, Ford was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a ceremony just outside the old schoolhouse at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.

“It just poured that day, so we couldn’t do it,” Pastor Don Simonton said. “Later, President Ford called and said ‘I’m staying an extra day so we can do this tomorrow.’ So we held the ceremony the next day.”

Ford was always willing to lend his name to projects. But he was just as willing to stand aside.

When the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail was being renovated several years ago, former Beaver Creek homeowner Alberto Vilar offered to make a big, big contribution, but wanted the amphitheater re-named for him.

“President Ford said, “That’s OK with me, if he’s going to donate that much to it,'” said longtime local resident Oscar Tang. “The Vail Valley Foundation board said ‘no way.'”

Given Vilar’s legal troubles a couple of years ago, Tang said not re-naming the amphitheater was a good move.

“But it’s a measure of how much he cared for the valley that he’d be willing to do that,” Tang said.

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 748-2930, or smiller@vaildaily.com.

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