Gerald Ford came to the Northwest several times for the usual political reasons, such as fundraisers and campaign stops.
But especially during his years as an ex-president, Ford came here for other reasons as well – vacations, speaking engagements, a brief stop to refuel his plane. He appeared at regional events ranging from Eastern Washington University’s centennial celebration in 1982 to the Richland Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet in 1979.
He also had a hand in several important political decisions for Washington and Idaho during his presidency in the 1970s, such as the signing of a bill that established the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington’s Central Cascade Mountains and a quick response to the collapse of the Teton Dam in southeastern Idaho.
“In Jerry Ford, what you saw was what you got – he had no pretensions,” said former Washington Gov. Dan Evans, who knew Ford well and worked with him in several capacities. “He was a good man.”
Unsurprisingly, the golf-happy former president also dropped in to play in charity events, such as a Sun Valley tournament in the late 1970s with former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus. Andrus remembers that Ford was envious of Andrus’ “fancy gubernatorial golf balls” with the Idaho state seal on them.
“He hit one out in the boonies, and was out there stomping around, looking for his ball, and he found one of mine,” Andrus said in an interview Wednesday. “He said, ‘You’ve got nicer balls than I had when I was president.’ “
Ford’s death on Tuesday at age 93 resonated personally with other Inland Northwest residents, as well.
A retired professor of political science, Tom Casstevens of Greenacres, met Ford as a young man in Michigan, where they briefly talked about ways to help raise Ford’s profile as a possible vice-presidential candidate. Over the ensuing years, one of Casstevens’ students rose to a position in the Ford White House, from where he would call occasionally for advice.
“He would ring me up and ask about this, that and the other thing,” said Casstevens, who retired from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., in 2000 and moved to Greenacres. “Our younger daughter would answer the phone and call down the hall, ‘Daddy, Daddy, it’s the White House calling.’ “
Ford’s last visit to the region was apparently in 1991 – or at least that was the last visit that attracted any publicity. In that year, he and some other couples – including former British Prime Minister James Callaghan – visited a home on Lake Pend Oreille and did some golfing.
On that visit, he left the impression of a friendly, down-to-earth man among the locals.
“He was very easy to talk to – a very nice person,” said Mark Stevens, a former Sandpoint-area resident who golfed with Ford on that trip. “He’d high-five you if you hit a good shot.”
Former Bonner County Commissioner Steve Klatt met Ford briefly on the golf course that week.
“He was everything that you read about: a real person,” said Klatt. “I guess in northern Idaho we tend not to oogle and awe too much over celebrities. He just seemed like an everyday, decent, nice sort of person.”
Evans, who served as Washington governor from 1965 to 1977, became acquainted with Ford early in his career, and the two were friends by the time Ford became vice president.
“We both were Eagle Scouts and both proud of that,” he said. “We talked about that on many occasions, and how that had developed leadership skills.”
When a bill declaring the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was headed to Ford’s desk in 1976, Evans heard the president was leaning toward a veto. He flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with Ford, taking along a coffee table book with photos of the area.
He’d been scheduled for a 15-minute meeting with Ford, but once the president started looking at the beautiful images of the Alpine Lakes, Evans said, he was hooked.
“Forty-five minutes later, we got through and he signed the bill,” Evans said.
He thinks Ford’s key legacy is his pardon of Nixon – a move that he believes cost Ford re-election.
“In spite of the political havoc it created for him, it was the right thing to do to pardon the president, to get us past Watergate as fast as possible,” he said.
Andrus, Idaho’s four-term Democratic governor and a Cabinet member in the Carter administration, also had words of praise for Ford. He recalled learning that the Teton Dam, an earthen structure on the Teton River in southeastern Idaho, had burst on a Saturday morning in June 1976.
“I immediately placed a call to the White House asking for a national declaration of emergency,” said Andrus, whose first term as governor ran from 1971-76. “He personally returned my call.”
Fourteen people died and about a billion dollars worth of damage was done in the ensuing floods.
Andrus described Ford as a “super-nice man” whose staff worked graciously with the Carter staffers in the transition between presidents.
“I have nothing but warm memories of him,” he said.
Ford visited Seattle and Spokane in the 1970s, stumping for himself and other Republicans. He spoke to a crowd in the Marie Antoinette Room at the Davenport in 1968, when he was a Michigan congressman.
Fourteen years later, he addressed a crowd at another downtown Spokane hotel – the Ridpath – when he came to town as the keynote speaker at EWU’s centennial celebration in April 1982.
In 1990, he spent a half-hour at Spokane Airways refueling his private plane, where he chatted with a Spokesman-Review reporter while the former British prime minister waited inside.
Charles Mutschler, archivist at Eastern Washington University, once spoke to Ford on the phone about the former president’s appointment of Ben Reifel as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Mutschler had an interest in Reifel from some other historical work he’d done, and so he sent Ford a letter, with a SASE, asking him some questions about the appointment.
“I didn’t hear back for a while,” he said. “I figured, he’s a very busy gentleman, no doubt, and he’s probably got more important things to do.”
But Mutschler ended up getting a call from Ford’s appointment secretary, who scheduled him five minutes on the phone with the former president.
“I was quite impressed,” he said.
Casstevens, the retired professor, had his contact with Ford while living in Michigan. As a graduate student in 1960, he and some fellow students met with Ford at the state convention in Grand Rapids.
At the time, Ford was interested in ideas for how he might “politely squeeze” Nixon to put Ford on the ticket as his running mate. Casstevens suggested that Ford try a last-minute effort to get write-in votes in Oregon as a way of raising his profile – an idea that got Ford’s attention, but probably came too late.
“He liked the idea,” Casstevens said. “I was gratified he took it seriously.”
Of course, Ford also had a reputation for physical clumsiness – one that extended to stories about his errant golf shots. Even Andrus joked about wandering the rough with Ford during a golf tournament.
But Stevens, the man who golfed with Ford in North Idaho in 1991, said Ford’s reputation as a wild golfer was undeserved.
“You always heard stories about him hitting people and stuff like that, but he was a good golfer,” Stevens said.
Stevens met Ford when the former president and his wife vacationed at the estate of German businessman Klaus Groenke in Hope, Idaho, in June 1991.
Stevens worked at Groenke’s mansion overlooking Lake Pend Oreille at the time and joined Ford for a game at the Hidden Lakes Golf Course along with Ben Love, Ford’s friend from Texas, and another worker at the estate.
The course was closed that day because of rain, but it was reopened to accommodate Ford, Stevens said. The group spent 45 minutes in the clubhouse waiting for the rain to stop.
“Finally, President Ford looked at his friend and said, ‘Oh, I think we’ve golfed in worse weather than this,’ ” said Stevens, who now lives along the Clark Fork River near the Montana border.
The four broke into teams – Stevens was with Ford and Love was with the other worker, a teenager just out of high school.
They only got through nine holes before the rain became too much. Stevens saved the score card – the game was a tie, thanks to a putt Ford nailed.
The trip also left another impression on the locals. The wife of former British Prime Minister James Callaghan, who vacationed with the Fords on at least a couple of occasions, was treated in the local hospital for a blood clot.
Ford later sent a handwritten note of thanks to a local newspaper, which now hangs framed in Bonner General Hospital in Sandpoint.
“Betty and I deeply appreciate the warm hospitality of all the wonderful people of northern Idaho. Thanks for your friendship,” the letter reads.