GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – A steady stream of mourners filed past former first lady Betty Ford's casket Thursday just hours before she was to be taken from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum to the Episcopal church where she will be memorialized for a final time.
Ford will be buried Thursday in the city where she grew up and wed the man who became the only president from Michigan. On Wednesday, hundreds filed past her flower-draped closed casket during a public viewing at the museum.
The visitation period continued Thursday morning when several hours were set aside for members of the public to pay final respects at the museum. Among the last to go by the casket was Geik Geiken, 61, a retired teacher from Grand Rapids.
"She's just a very real, genuine first lady, probably more so than anyone I can think of," he said of Ford. He said the Fords "are a very important part of Grand Rapids."
Ford died Friday at age 93 and will be interred on the museum grounds next to her husband on what would have been his 98th birthday.
Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, was to speak at Thursday's service at Grace Episcopal Church, where the Fords married and where Gerald Ford also was memorialized following his death in 2006. Former first lady Barbara Bush and former President Bill Clinton were expected to attend, and historian Richard Norton Smith also was to speak.
A smaller service was held Wednesday after Ford's casket landed at Gerald R. Ford International Airport and was escorted in a procession to the museum. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other dignitaries attended that service with the Ford family prior to the public viewing. On Tuesday, a service at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., was attended by 800 people, including former President George W. Bush and first lady Michelle Obama.
At least 300 mourners paid their respects Wednesday, some carrying flags and others sharing thoughts about the importance of the Fords to Grand Rapids and Michigan. The four-hour viewing followed a similar, and sometimes tearful, send-off by thousands of well-wishers in California earlier in the day.
On Thursday, Cheryl Karsten of Jamestown carried a white potholder with a blue gingham border from one of Gerald Ford's congressional campaigns as she walked past his wife's mahogany casket covered in pink and white flowers, with a presidential seal alight overhead and an honor guard standing in attendance.
"Vote for Congressman Jerry Ford who works for you in Congress," it said in red. Karsten had signed the condolence book several days ago, but decided on the spur of the moment Thursday to pay her respects.
"Our family supported them (the Fords) for years. I just felt like I had to go," she said, adding that she had stood in line for eight hours to walk past Gerald Ford's casket four years ago.
A day earlier, those paying their respects were handed a card with a photo of Ford and a note of appreciation from the Ford family. A Ford granddaughter, 30-year-old Tyne Vance, shook hands with those leaving.
"Thank you for coming," she said to each one.
Wednesday's and Thursday's crowds weren't as large as when Gerald Ford's funeral and memorial services were held over two icy winter days in January 2007. But Betty Ford, who gave dance lessons in Grand Rapids and worked as a fashion coordinator and clothing buyer at the local Herpolscheimer's department store before marrying Gerald Ford, was remembered fondly by those who came to pay homage.
"She really reached out to all the people who struggled . . . with drug and alcohol addiction," said John Patrick Jr., a 38-year-old Grand Rapids resident who works with dialysis patients and sees the ravages alcoholism can wreak. "She was very gracious."
Thousands of people have signed condolence books in Grand Rapids for Ford since Saturday.
For former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and friends Joni Vander Till and Vicki Avink, the public viewing was a chance to talk about the days when the three young women greeted the Fords on the airport tarmac on their returns to Michigan with hand-lettered signs that read, "Welcome home, Jerry," and "Welcome home, Betty."
All three were "Scatterblitzers" during Gerald Ford's 1976 presidential campaign, young women who traveled around the Midwest and handed out Michigan apples for Ford. Land said Betty Ford gave them someone else to respect and admire besides the well-regarded president, as she played a large role in caring for her family and boosting her husband's career — in her own outspoken way.
"She sometimes disagreed with her husband on some of the issues. And so that was kind of a big deal," Land recalled. "I think he always appreciated her opinion, even though some days he was a little frustrated."
In California, the hearse carrying Ford's body drove through Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and other desert resort cities, people lined the streets and hoisted American flags to say goodbye to the beloved former first lady. Some wiped tears from their eyes.
"The family was overwhelmed with the number of people," family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said. "They are so heartfelt and grateful."
Thousands more turned out for Wednesday's motorcade, including people who sat along the route in beach chairs. A woman on a golf course stopped her cart and held her hand over her heart, while people nearby shouted "Thank you, Betty." Many clapped and stood at attention.
During Tuesday's service, former first lady Rosalynn Carter and journalist Cokie Roberts, among others, hailed Ford as a force of nature whose boundless energy and enthusiasm, coupled with a steadfast determination to do what was right, pushed the country toward a commitment to equal rights for women and other causes.
Ford, the accidental first lady, was thrust into the White House when Richard Nixon resigned as president on Aug. 9, 1974, and her husband, then vice president, assumed the nation's highest office. Although she always said she never expected nor wanted to be first lady, she quickly embraced the role.
Her candidness, unheard of at the time, helped bring such previously taboo subjects as breast cancer into the public discussion as she openly discussed her own battle with the disease. She was equally outspoken about her struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and her spearheading of the creation of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage to treat those diseases has benefited thousands.
"Millions of women are in her debt today and she was never afraid to speak the truth even about the most sensitive subjects, including her own struggle with alcohol and pain killers," Carter said. "She got some criticism, but I thought she was wonderful and her honesty gave to others every single day."
Other mourners who packed the church included former California first lady Maria Shriver, former California Gov. Pete Wilson and Ford's four children.
Associated Press writers Jeff Wilson contributed to this report from Palm Springs, Calif., and John Rogers reported from Los Angeles.
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