If Grand Rapids had a favorite president, it would likely be the late Gerald R. Ford Jr. With an airport, a freeway, a museum, and more named for the nation’s thirty-eighth commander-in-chief, it’s clear that our fair city could not be prouder of its most famous adopted son.
And so, in honor of this, the 100th anniversary of Ford’s birth, we share with you today Hank Meijer’s foreword to Hendrik Booraem V’s Young Jerry Ford: Athlete and Citizen, in which he celebrates the boy who was not born Gerald R. Ford, the hometown that raised him though it did not witness his birth, and the president Ford grew up to become.
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Jerry Ford was not born Jerry Ford. Thereon hangs a tale unlike any other in the annals of presidential biography. The exotic and dramatic story of his origins yields to the more familiar story of his all-American youth in a happy corner of the Midwest. It also colors that familiar story in ways that enrich our understanding of this most underrated leader of the free world. The narrative is one of family, in all its complex permutations, and it bears all the reassuring hallmarks of faith and fortitude and good feeling that we hunger for in our leaders.
President Ford restored the good name of the United States in a time of crisis. He was not a man whose temperament was given to brooding or doubt, anxiety or sleeplessness. But in his later years, in Colorado or California, when he couldn’t sleep, he told his friend, presidential biographer Richard Norton Smith, he would lie awake at night “and think of Grand Rapids” as if evoking a comfortable dream.
He was not born in Grand Rapids, just as he was not born Jerry Ford. But Grand Rapids became his hometown when he was very young. Its iconic Midwestern sobriety and earnestness went a long way toward defining him. It nurtured and sheltered him. It eventually sent him to Congress as its representative — over and over. He repaid his constituents with hard work, from personal responses to their letters and requests to inspiring appearances at every occasion, from the Red Flannel Days parade to the smallest school assembly. He served the town and the town, in turn, gave him a place to which he could always go home again.
Hendrik Booraem’s story of the young Gerald Ford is a powerful testament to the way nature and nurture — and in some ways nature giving way to nurture — come together to form who we are. Tracing the childhood of our thirty-eighth president is a detective story as well as a retelling of familiar truths. Booraem, who has previously published youth biographies of Presidents Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, James Garfield, and Calvin Coolidge, does a masterful job of discerning in Ford’s youth the seeds of character that would alter American history.
His mother and stepfather provided the secure support that fostered a confident young man. Their home had three rules: work hard, tell the truth, and show up for dinner on time. The Boy Scouts, South High School, and an uneven gridiron, where a young athlete proved his toughness and prowess, provided settings where a powerful personality could begin to assert itself. As Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill observed of his good friend across the aisle, the country was fortunate to have President Ford in its grave moment of constitutional peril in the 1970s just as it was fortunate to have Abraham Lincoln during the agony of the Civil War in the 1860s.
Reflecting on West Michigan’s native son in this the centennial year of his birth (2013), it is altogether appropriate that we revisit his roots as we celebrate his legacy. Where did Gerald Ford come from? What resources did he draw upon when he found himself so suddenly crossing the threshold of the White House as its unelected occupant? We are lucky indeed to have Hendrik Booraem’s account of how where he came from shaped who he became.