President Gerald R. Ford’s funeral took place at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids yesterday afternoon. My wife, Sarah, and I were among about 400 individuals who were privileged to attend the service, one I consider both an historic and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We arrived at a nearby gated and guarded church parking lot about forty-five minutes before the first shuttle bus to Grace Episcopal was schedule at 11:30 am. Eventually we were taken along with other passengers in the first bus to travel to the church, where we walked to a downstairs room used as a staging area for funeral service attendees. With other guests we enjoyed coffee, tea, or water, and assorted cookies in what amounted to a two hour reception before we were directed upstairs to our seats.
Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, former Michigan Governor John Engler and incumbent Governor Jennifer Granholm and their spouses, Michigan Secretary of State Terri Land and her husband, and many other political, civic, and corporate leaders were among the guests awaiting seating. Through the church basement windows we glimpsed military personnel forming an honor guard and a military band.
The staging area proved to be a very well-considered part of the plan, for it allowed people to pass the time in conversation, to sit, stand, or walk about, to access nearby restrooms, or to enjoy refreshments. None of this would have been possible if guests had been seated immediately upon arrival for what turned out to be a long wait and a late service start.
The Grace Episcopal Church auditorium is graced with a pipe organ behind the pulpit area in the front of the church and several beautiful stained glass windows illustrating various Christian symbols and biblical stories. The funeral service was administered by the Rector from St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church and School, Palm Desert, California, The Reverend Dr. Robert G. Certain, along with former Grace Episcopal Rector and current Rector, Christ Church, Staten Island, NY, The Reverend Charles H. Howell, Interim Rector at Grace Episcopal, The Reverend Dr. J. Nixon McMillan, and Deacon, Grace Episcopal, The Reverend Katherine Brower.
President Ford’s casket was escorted in and out by a full military honor guard, and the funeral featured a church choir of local voices, singing the prelude, and the United States Army Chorus. Scripture readers included President Ford’s sons, Michael (Psalm 23) and Steven (Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39) with grandchildren, Sarah Ford Goodfellow, Tyne Vance Berlanga, and Christian Gerald Ford serving as Intercessors.
Proverbs 3:5-6, one of the President’s favorite scripture passages, was printed in the program and was referenced during the service. Hymns included, among others, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The congregation was led in a unison reading of The Apostles’ Creed.
Tributes were offered by former Secretary of Defense, The Honorable Donald Rumsfeld, former President Jimmy Carter, and former director of the Ford Museum and current director of the Abraham Lincoln Museum, Richard Norton Smith. Dr. Certain offered the Homily. Also in attendance were Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynn, along with Mrs. Rosalyn Carter.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s comments were interesting and pithy, particularly his observation that President Ford “reminded Americans of who they were.” Mr. Smith’s comments were brilliantly conceived and written and very well presented. As a presidential scholar, he put President Ford’s service in historical perspective, saying the president evidenced “an utter lack of pretense” and that he “was better at statesmanship than salesmanship.” He noted the president’s own self-deprecating joke that he was “charismatically challenged” but then observed that “whatever he lacked in charisma he more than made up for in character.”
In my estimation, President Carter’s presentation was the most moving and engaging part of the service. President Carter’s longtime friendship with President Ford worked to make Mr. Carter’s comments personal, emotional, and spiritually informed. President Carter said that he and Mr. Ford had a lot in common: both served in the Navy, both married “good looking, smart, and very independent women,” and both had three sons, “And then God answered our prayers (pause to laughter). He gave us daughters (more laughter).”
President Carter also said that he and President Ford shared a faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Twice and slowly for emphasis President Carter said, “We are saved by our faith in God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He also observed that President Ford was a man devoted to God, family, and country and that President Ford’s faith had sustained him in the White House. President Carter began and ended his comments by repeating “my first words as President of the United States.” Referring to President Ford in the first sentence of his inaugural address, President Carter said, “For myself and our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land.”
The funeral started late and ended late. But no one cared. I think everyone there, from Honorary Pallbearers like Ambassador Peter Secchia, Amway Co-founder Richard DeVos, retail leader Fred Meijer, and golfing great Jack Nicklaus to the last person to leave, all felt privileged to have played some small part in honoring a gentleman politician at his homecoming to Grand Rapids and his homegoing to heaven.
Sarah and I were grateful for the opportunity to attend Mr. Ford’s funeral, and we rejoice in the national media’s focus upon character and principle, for this is not only accurate and fair to the man, Gerald R. Ford, but is a good and appropriate reflection upon Grand Rapids, Michigan. God give us more Jerry Fords.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2007
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