Betty Ford, wife of former President Gerald Ford died yesterday in Rancho Mirage, California, where she and her late husband lived for many years after he left office.
May she rest in peace. Betty Ford was a remarkable woman. At a time when people still whispered the word “cancer,” she brought breast cancer out of the closet when she revealed that she had been diagnosed and needed a mastectomy. She removed a great deal of the stigma associated with addiction when she revealed her own struggles and went on to found the landmark Betty Ford Center.
Those are amazing things for any woman, but especially for someone who would go on to become the First Lady, in the case of her cancer, and for someone who had just been the First Lady and still lived in the public eye, in the case of admitting her addiction to alcohol and pain medicine.
As the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, I am very grateful to her for essentially taking breast cancer mainstream. Where would breast cancer treatment be today without the visibility that Ford and a few others gave to it? Would as many advances had been made if people had stayed quiet about breast cancer for even just a few more years?
Even though I lived and worked in the Palm Springs area for a few years, I never got the chance to meet Betty Ford in person. Several of my colleagues did. And my former colleague Christine Mahr, with whom I worked at The Desert Sun, used to talk about how she’d occasionally spot Betty Ford shopping for shoes at a designer shoe outlet in Palm Desert, not far from our office. Chris would notice the Secret Service agents first, and then she’d see Betty, happily browsing for footwear.
I never spotted Betty around town (that I know of) when I was working in the Palm Springs area, but I did have a random encounter with her husband.
One morning, I was visiting Eisenhower Medical Center to cover a new apprentice program that allowed high school students to follow medical personnel around the hospital to see what their jobs were like on a daily basis. As I walked out the door of the hospital, a kind-faced elderly man was walking toward me, followed by several much younger, very fit men in suits. He was wearing what looked golf clothes, and as he saw me look at him, he smiled and nodded and said good morning. I did the same in return.
My first thought was that the man looked familiar but perhaps it was because he reminded me a little of my grandfather Bill. My second thought was, “Wait a minute….That was Gerald Ford!” And I turned my head and caught the sight of him entering the building with his Secret Service agents, and decided that I was right. “He was president when I was a baby,” I thought, as I made my way back to my car, a little star-struck. Yes, even a jaded old reporter like me was a little starstruck by randomly running into a former president.
Side note: It really was Gerald Ford, too. As a newspaper reporter, I was bound to notify my editors that the valley’s arguably most famous resident was entering the hospital, so I did. The president’s spokeswoman noted that yes, he had voluntarily gone to the hospital this morning to get a few tests run, but he was fine. And he was. His death did not come for at least another year.
At any rate, I’m glad that Betty Ford lived such a long life full of achievements. She helped countless people in her actions. I hope she is already reunited with her husband and is having a grand old time.