GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Gerald R. Ford was laid to rest on the grounds of his presidential museum Wednesday after eight days of mourning and remembrance that spanned the country, from the California desert to the nation’s capital and back to Ford’s boyhood home.
The sunset burial capped the official mourning for the 38th president after a 17-hour viewing Tuesday night and Wednesday at the museum in his hometown.
At a graveside service that included a 21-gun salute and a 21-aircraft flyover, Vice President Dick Cheney presented former first lady Betty Ford with the American flag that was draped over her husband’s casket.
Earlier, Ford was remembered as a man not afraid to laugh, make tough decisions or listen to the advice of his independent wife in eulogies delivered during a funeral at the church the couple attended for six decades.
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An honor guard carried the casket inside Grace Episcopal Church, where Ford’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, recalled his public service.
Rumsfeld: 'He was one of us'
His widow wiped away tears as she sat with the couple’s four children and more than 300 dignitaries and family friends, including golfing legend Jack Nicklaus.
“He was one of us,” Rumsfeld said, “And that made him special and needed in a dark and dangerous hour for our nation.”
Rumsfeld, who recently left his post as President Bush’s defense secretary, remembered Ford as a courageous and steady leader who healed the nation after Watergate.
Rumsfeld said the Navy is considering naming a new aircraft carrier after Ford, a Navy veteran. A decision is expected later this month.
“How fitting it would be that the name Gerald R. Ford will patrol the high seas for decades to come in defense of the nation he loved so much,” he said.
Carter described the close personal friendship he and Ford developed over the years.
“I relished his sound advice,” Carter said as his wife, Rosalynn, cried. “I want to thank my predecessor for all he did to heal our land.”
Thousands of flag-waving mourners lined the roads under sunny skies as the motorcade bearing Ford’s casket traveled between his presidential museum in downtown Grand Rapids to the church, before returning to the museum.
Viewing period extended
The viewing had to be extended Wednesday until nearly noon so everyone in line could pay their respects. Some 57,000 mourners waited hours to file past the flag-draped casket during the night. Some stopped and made silent prayers.
“We’re here to honor him,” said Philip Bareham of Lansing, who was the last person to view the casket and whose parents were among Ford’s earliest supporters and political allies. “We just love this family. They are so down to earth.”
Ford represented Grand Rapids in Congress for 25 years. His family had belonged to Grace Episcopal Church since the early 1940s.
Richard Norton Smith, an author, presidential historian and former director of Ford’s museum and library, reminded mourners how important Ford’s hometown was to him.
“Grand Rapids returned his affection many times over,” which was “unforgettably demonstrated by the tens of thousands who stood in line for hours outside the museum, braving the cold to assure that his last night was anything but lonely,” Smith said.
Draped over the back of one pew at the funeral was a blue blanket with the letter “M” emblazoned on it, symbolizing Ford’s alma mater, the University of Michigan, where he played football for national championship teams in 1932 and 1933.
Many of the mourners at the museum and lining the roads during his funeral procession on Wednesday wore Michigan hats and sweat shirts in his honor.
Ford, who became president after Richard Nixon resigned, died Dec. 26 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 93.
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