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Hiking is great but not all hikes are the same.

Hiking with the returning swans and eagles in Millennium Park near Grand Rapids, Michigan is a forest bathing classic while pounding the downtown asphalt touches my life force in an entirely different way. Both routes are equally amazing but while the trees clap their hands to the glory of God, the city surrounds me with the realities of civilization.

I breathe in God’s majesty in nature but do cultural sifting on civilized asphalt.

Originally the downtown hike attracted me because it was always interesting, even entertaining. The river itself is actually grand but the fish ladder is a magnet for all sorts of action. The Pantlind Hotel memory exists beneath the Amway Grand Plaza. Rosa Parks Circle and Calder Plaza stand in stark contrast. The museums draw a wonderful mix of young and old. There’s even a carousel. Someone has paid attention to the city’s history and relevant reminders are strategically placed. There’s even an attempt to fold in some sanitized native history near the Ford Presidential Library and Museum. With all that going on it’s really easy to ponder what civilized human beings have built.

Lately, I’ve added a little pondering detour into the burial site of President Gerald Rudolph and Elizabeth Anne Ford. It didn’t take long to start to think of them as simply Jerry & Betty. That seems less pretentious and they always seemed to be one of us. Plus they knew a lot about complicated living and as everybody knows we live in complicated times.

The connections between their-then and our-now are definitely worth pondering.

Everybody remembers their stories. Jerry famously stumbled down the stairs of Air Force One and was immediately roasted in a Saturday Night Live skit. Comedians and politicians piled on with all sorts of insults. LBJ once said, “He’s a nice guy but he played too much football with his helmet off.”

Unique factoids about his term in office denied him public image credibility. He never quite owned the offices of Veep and POTUS in his own right. He occupied the two highest elected offices in the USA while not actually being elected to either one. His 895 days in the Oval Office were the shortest for any President who did not die in office.

Plus he pardoned Richard Nixon.

That’s the piece that dominates his story. That’s the piece that intrigues. After all the stumbles, after all the weird twists of history that astonishingly brought him into our highest offices without a single vote — what was he thinking? If he had let the law take its course maybe we would not be in such a mess about how to handle a former President now. At the time I admired that decision but in retrospect it seems that simple cause and effect was ignored and discarded.

Perhaps not. That line of pondering quickly loses its righteous indignation when one considers the foibles of backseat driving. Perhaps the presidential decisions of Jerry Ford reflect something more significant. Perhaps Jerry learned that life is always complicated but it does not have to be chaotic.

Maybe that hard lesson learned began in that barber shop on Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. Representative Ford kept an office in the backroom where his constituents came to be heard. It’s the place where Jerry found his calling and honed his skills by hard work and even harder listening. A portrait of Jerry still hangs in that room though it’s little more than a mud room today.

Betty found her wisdom through self honesty and pure grit. She struggled out of addiction, finding her balance and her calling. And then she modeled social and political activism for all other first ladies to follow.

And thus the complicated Jerry & Betty stood strong when President and First Lady were thrust upon them. They were human and they were like us. They stumbled, they worked, they learned and were surprised by all of life’s twists and turns.

Jerry & Betty were so compellingly human. They are so compellingly contemporary.

At his inauguration that strength was dramatically demonstrated when Jerry said,

My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.

August 9, 1974.

Such a fascinating stream of thought. With fingers on the pulse of the nation Jerry was restorative first of all. It was a pastoral recognition of a chaotic and fear driven nightmare that threatened the fabric that made us one. That nightmare ends where law is honored and we heed the divine call to righteousness, love, justice and mercy.

I’m still not entirely sure his decision to pardon Nixon was correct, but I am sure Jerry’s homily is not only relevant today but is majestic in its power. The world is still complicated but it need not be chaotic. FIfty years later that hard learned lesson can still drive us toward wisdom.

The specifics are different today but somehow nightmares and chaos repeat with nauseating regularity. Political leaders fiddle while the world burns. Society is susceptible to delusion and fear. The churches wander in wordsmithing and church order minutia. No end of complications or chaos in sight but the path out of nightmare still runs directly through the best of human civilization, yoked to God’s grace.

And Betty, 50 years ago? She brought wisdom home. She added hope.

She danced. She kicked off her shoes. She climbed onto the Cabinet table and she danced. On that emblem of huge civilization power, she danced. She smiled for freedom that day and whimsically hoped for brighter tomorrows with a huge smile on her face.

I hope Jerry laughed. Their complicated chapter completed, they were exiting the White House that very day. . . on feet of wisdom with dignity and integrity intact.

Thank you, Jerry and Betty. Your message for the ages can still be heard today.

Stand strong. Be wise. Dance.

Al Schipper

Al Schipper is a retired chaplain and teacher. He is optimistic by nature and enthusiastic by choice. Retirement brought interim challenges, foreign ministry, Red Cross adventures, and authoring COPACETIC: God’s People Transforming Chaos. Now abiding in Grand Rapids, Michigan but always with an eye toward the horizon.


  • Kevin Bolkema says:

    The Constitution still works but it is no longer upheld by today’s Republican Party. I believe Ford would be as appalled as the rest of us.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    A thoughtful, inspiring tribute. May we all be remembered with such grace.

  • RZ says:

    I wonder if Nixon’s actions would even be hand-slapped in today’s legislature. Presidents Nixon and Clinton both had the capacity, on some level, to experience shame and remorse. President Ford’s pardoning action, right or wrong, was seen by most as undertaken for the good of the country. Character matters! Party and platform will acquiesce to true character every time.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I am so glad you wrote this. I finally visited Jerry and Betty’s graveside last year and found myself moved and inspired. So unpretentious and quietly powerful. And while touring the Museum, I too had to reflect on my opposition to the Pardon of Nixon, especially the precedent it has set, when i realized the moral courage it took for Ford to make that choice, knowing what it would do to his reputation and that it would cost him his reelection. Right or wrong, he made the choice at cost to himself. So thank you.

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    Wonderful essay. Compelling story for today’s exhausting struggles. I think Ford was the only Republican my father voted for in the six presidential elections for which he was eligible and alive, quite a rebellious stance for a son of a CRC minister. He probably never told his dad. He received vocational training as a barber before starting college as a 24-year-old. He claimed that he worked at that Fulton Street barber shop where President Ford (I mean Jerry) got his haircut and at least one he got to cut Jerry’s hair. I was too young when he died to think this was cool. Now I regret not asking more details.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Jerry and Betty truly believed in God and service to their country. Today’s world has made a mockery of both, with Bibles emblazoned with flags for profit and zero sum games played with millions of peoples’ lives. Your thoughts on his pardon are what many of us wonder as the possibility of democracy running off the rails becomes ever more present. But he acted, at the time, in what he truly believed was the best thing for the country and did it unapologetically and with great cost to himself. That is character and integrity. That was his legacy.

  • George Goris Vink says:

    No doubt, well put, Al. I still prize a letter signed by him that enabled my employment at Eastern Ave 55 years ago. Character and integrity meant something to this “stumbler” like us.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Al, for reminding us that Jerry was a man of character.
    One can’t help but wonder how this President Ford would see and “run” our country today.

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