As many of you likely know, the only president from Michigan was never elected to that position. Gerald R. Ford was raised in the Grand Rapids area and had an interesting life even before he was made Vice President, and then President in the wake of the infamous Watergate Scandal.

Ford’s Early Life

Gerald Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska. Leslie Lynch King Sr was a wool trader who married Dorothy Gardiner. The couple lived with Leslie’s parents, Charles Henry King, a wealthy banker, and Martha. Starting on their honeymoon, Leslie Sr. was abusive to Dorothy. When the baby was only sixteen days old, Leslie Sr. came after the two with a knife. This sparked a divorce, and Dorothy took the baby to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Oak Park, Illinois. A couple of years later, mother and son moved to Grand Rapids to live with her parents. When the divorce was finalized, she retained custody of her son.

On February 1, 1917, Dorothy married Gerald Rudolff Ford. He was a salesman in a family-owned paint and varnish company. Ford was the only father the future president knew while growing up, and eventually everyone called him Gerald R. Ford Jr. The couple had three more sons, Thomas, born in 1918, Richard, born in 1924, and James, born in 1927. Unbeknownst to Ford, his biological father remarried and had three children as well. Ford never met these siblings until 1960. He didn’t even meet his biological father until he was 17 years old. Though never formally adopted by Ford Sr, Gerald formally changed his name on December 3, 1935.

Gerald Ford’s boyhood was marked by strong family ties, extracurricular activities, civic involvement, and an appreciation of nature. He was a member of the Boy Scouts and rose to the rank of Eagle Scout. Ford attended Grand Rapids South High School (which closed in 1968). There, he was a star athlete and captain of the football team. He excelled in history and government and was named the most popular senior. In 1930, he was selected to the All-City football team of the Grand Rapids City League. While in high school, he worked hard at everything he did, even earning his own way as a server in a restaurant.

Life as a Wolverine

After high school, Ford attended the University of Michigan, majoring in economics. He also played on the school’s football team, in the positions of center, linebacker, and long snapper. He was a member of the undefeated National Championship teams in 1932 and 1933. Unfortunately, the 1934 season was less successful with the team only winning one game. This became a positive aspect for Ford as he was able to use his experiences as a college athlete to face tough situations, take action when needed, and make every effort possible in his life.

Ford graduated from Michigan in 1935 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He turned down offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers to play professional football and decided to focus on the law. He applied to Yale Law School, and to earn money while attending, he became an assistant boxing coach and the assistant varsity football coach. At first, Yale denied his admission because of his full-time coaching positions, but Ford did not give up. He spent the summer of 1937 at the University of Michigan’s Law School, and in 1938, he was finally admitted to Yale Law. He became the Junior Varsity head football coach and also began working as a model.

The Yale Years

At Yale, he met Phyllis Brown, a student at Connecticut College for Women. Ford also became more involved in politics. He was dedicated to neutrality and joined a group that worked toward keeping the United States out of World War II. In the summer of 1940, he worked on the campaign for Republican Wendell Willkie. He graduated from Yale, third in his class, in 1941, and was admitted to the Michigan Bar. In May of that year, he and his friend Philip Buchen opened a law practice in Grand Rapids. He also coached football and taught business law at the University of Grand Rapids (now Davenport University). Though he was still in love with Phyllis, she didn’t want to move with him, so the two ended their relationship.

World War II

December 7, 1941, brought much change when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor bringing the United States into the war. Despite his previous views on the war, Ford enlisted in the Navy and received a commission as ensign in the US Naval Reserve in April of 1942. On April 20, he reported for active duty to V-5 instructor school in Annapolis, Maryland, then quickly went on to Navy Preflight school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Here he taught navigation skills, ordnance, gunnery, first aid, and military drill. He also coached all nine sports that were offered at the school. By March of 1943, he had worked his way up to the rank of Lieutenant.

Ford applied for active sea duty where he was involved in several major battles with the Japanese. While serving, he received several military awards including the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. He was honorably discharged in February of 1946 after the war had ended. He returned to Grand Rapids and joined the Butterfield, Keeney, and Amberg law office.

Gerald and Betty

Once home, Ford met Elizabeth “Betty” Bloomer, a divorcee who worked as a fashion coordinator at a department store in Grand Rapids. It was during this time that he also became active in Republican politics, though military service had changed his views on America’s role on the world stage. He now considered himself an internationalist.

Ford’s first political campaign was in 1948 during his engagement to Betty. He ran for, and won, a seat in the US House of Representatives, serving in Michigan’s 5th District. Now 35 years old, Ford personally visited voters at their doorsteps and at the factories where they worked. He also visited many local farms helping him win the election. On October 15, 1948, Gerald and Betty were married. They had four children: Michael, born in 1950, John, born in 1952, Steven, born in 1956 and finally Susan, born in 1957.

A Politician’s Life

While a member of the House of Representatives, Ford was known as a negotiator and reconciler.  He had a reputation for being an open and honest everyman. His goal was to become Speaker of the House. On November 29, 1963, he was appointed to the Warren Commission, a task force that was set up to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One of his specific missions was to prepare a biography of assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. From 1965 until 1973, he did attain the position of House Minority Leader and won many friends in the House because of his fair leadership and inoffensive personality. He remained a member of the House for 25 years.

On October 10, 1973, Spiro Agnew retired as Vice President of the United States. Many senior congressional leaders nominated Ford to take his place, and Ford accepted when Richard Nixon offered him the position. Ford said that it would be the conclusion of his career, but fate had other ideas. He took his oath of office at the height of the Watergate Scandal, and even before moving into the VP’s residence was told that he should prepare to become president.

Ford Becomes 38th President

When Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Ford assumed the presidency. He hadn’t been elected to the Vice Presidency nor the presidency, but was now the President of the United States. On September 8, 1974, he pardoned Richard Nixon which was a highly controversial decision.  Both historians and Ford himself believed this action was one of the main reasons he lost the 1976 election ending his career as a politician.

While president, two women attempted to assassinate Ford while he was in California. On September 5, 1975, in Sacramento, Lynette Fromme tried shooting him. Not two weeks later, Sara Jane Moore attempted to shoot him in San Francisco.

Ford’s personal life continued to have more ups and downs after serving his time as president but that entails a story for another day. After representing Michigan for years, Gerald R. Ford died on December 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 93 years old. In the end, he came back to his beloved Michigan, where he was buried in Grand Rapids at the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

Author: Erica Emelander

BMN contributor, Erica Marie LaPres Emelander, currently resides in Grand Rapids West Michigan. She is a teacher, as well as an author of historic fiction under the pen name Marie LaPres. Visit her website to learn more about her books and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram