Gerald Ford was born on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska. A star college football player, he served in the Navy during WWII. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1948, Ford represented Michigan's 5th District for nearly 25 years before suddenly finding himself at the crossroads of history. He was elevated to vice president, and then became the 38th U.S. president due to Richard Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation. Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. He died in California in 2006.
Gerald R. Ford Jr. was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska, but kept neither his name nor his hometown for long. In just weeks, he was whisked away by his mother, Dorothy Ayer Gardner, to her parents' home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A plucky woman who would not tolerate abuse, she divorced his father, Leslie Lynch King Sr., within the year, and less than three years later, was married to Gerald Rudolff Ford, a local paint company salesman, from whence "Jerry" Jr. got his name—although it was not made legal until he was 22 years old.
Growing up in Grand Rapids, in the close-knit family with three younger brothers, Jerry Ford was not even aware of the existence of his biological father until he was 17. He became a local sports hero as captain of his high school football team and an avid Eagle Scout. His athletic prowess as a Wolverine at the University of Michigan eared him the designation of Most Valuable Player.
But instead of taking up a professional football career as offered by both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, Ford opted to take his economics degree to Yale University, where he attended law school and also worked as a football and boxing coach.
Early Political Career
Ford got his first taste of political life in 1940 as a volunteer for Wendell Wilkie's presidential campaign, attending the Republican Convention that year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A year later, he graduated from Yale Law School in the top third of his class, and then returned home to Grand Rapids to work in a law firm, putting his toe in the water of local politics.
However, WWII intervened, and Ford enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942. He returned to civilian life in 1946, having earned the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal, and quickly resumed his law practice and civic activities.
In August 1947, Ford met his future wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Bloomer Warren, through mutual friends. A former model and dancer with Martha Graham's company in New York City, the recent divorcee had recently returned home to Grand Rapids and was employed as department store fashion coordinator, while also teaching dance to handicapped children.
Less than a year later, Ford decided to run for Congress to represent his Michigan district (District 5). He and Betty were married in October 1948, a few weeks before his sweeping victory, which would sweep both newlyweds away to Washington, D.C. for the next 30 years.
Declining a suggestion to run for the Senate in 1954, Ford's long career as a congressman encompassed work on foreign policy, the military, spending, the space program and the Warren Commission.
Although he served as House minority leader, Ford's ambition to be speaker of the House seemed out of reach and, thusly, the congressman was contemplating retirement following his 13th term in the House concluded in 1976. The changing political atmosphere of the '70s would dictate otherwise, however.
On October 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned under allegations of income tax evasion and bribery. Two days later, President Richard Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to take his place, under the provisions of the Constitution's 25th Amendment, and in two months, Ford was sworn in as the country's 40th vice president.
Over the ensuing months, investigations into Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal sped up, culminating with Nixon's resignation on August 8, 1974. One day later, on August 9, 1974, Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.
The following month, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon—a move that hung like a shadow over Ford's longstanding reputation for integrity. That same month, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer, and subsequently underwent a radical mastectomy.
Ford's early presidency marked a state of tumult for the nation, with downfalls including a seriously ailing economy (and an almost bankrupt New York City), an essential defeat in the Vietnam War, rocky foreign relations and an energy crisis. In addition to that, around this time, two assassination attempts, by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, were made on Ford's life.
Following in Nixon's footsteps with China, Ford was the first U.S. president to visit Japan, but he is often remembered as clumsy, ironic given his athletic prowess, due to several trips, falls and gaffes that were immortalized in parody by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live.
Challenged by fellow Republican Ronald Reagan during his campaign for re-election in 1976, Ford eked out the nomination only to be defeated by Jimmy Carter in the presidential election.
Death and Legacy
Gerald Ford died on December 26, 2006, at home in Rancho Mirage, California, at the age of 93—the oldest any president has lived to date. Named in his honor are a presidential library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a museum in Grand Rapids, but both are eclipsed in renown by the Betty Ford Rehabilitation Clinic in California.
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