Grand Rapids’ first family

GVL / Emily Frye

GVL / Emily Frye

Alex Sinn

To wrap up its 50th anniversary Golden Lecture Series, Grand Valley State University’s College of Education hosted Susan Ford Bales, the daughter of President Gerald R. Ford, and Ford biographer Hendrik Booraem, to discuss the education of the 38th president.

The event, held at the L. William Seidman Center on GVSU’s Pew campus in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, April 15, was moderated by Gleaves Whitney, the director of the GVSU Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

“Gerald R. Ford achieved a synthesis that is hard to achieve,” Whitney said to begin his series of questions.

The first topic involved the first year of Ford’s life, when he and his mother fled an abusive husband and father and moved to Grand Rapids, Mich.

“I think this created a sense of insecurity in Ford,” said Booraem, author of “Young Ford: Athlete and Citizen.”

This early event in Ford’s life may have contributed to a shyness in school and with women, he said. As a child, Ford also struggled with a stutter and had a temper.

Grand Rapids was a prime environment in which Ford was able to counter these difficulties and develop his presidential qualities, Booraem said.

“It put him in a community with a very special set of values,” he said. “A bias toward community involvement.”

Involvement in sports, especially football, and in Boy Scouts, helped Ford find the discipline he needed, Booraem said.

“He needed structure in his life,” he said. “And that’s what [Boy Scouts] is about: structure.”

Ford was not naturally gifted in school, Booraem said, but he worked hard at his education, eventually leading him to the University of Michigan, where he studied economics, and on to pursue a law degree at Yale University.

“It wasn’t brilliance that did this,” he said. “It was study habits.”

Alongside his education, Ford also held steady jobs.

“Unusually for 20
th century presidents, he worked the whole time he was in high school, the whole time he was in college,” Booraem said.

Ford had an ability to always improve the longer and harder he spent working at something, he said.

“I think the nation really lost out when Ford didn’t win a full term as president,” he said.

Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, said she continues to learn about her father’s early years.

“There are these huge gaps for us as children,” she said. Documents found in the family house revealed Ford’s name-change from Leslie Lynch King Jr., after his birth-father. “Because he never acknowledged it, we never really asked.”

Both of her parents valued education, formal or informal, Bales said.

“Education was huge to them, because their parents were not educated,” she said.

They each brought a different kind of knowledge into the home, she said.

“Mother was the day-to-day survivalist and dad was the book-smart,” she said. “So I felt really privileged and lucky to have gotten both sides.”

Bales touched on her mother’s work with handicapped children as a dance instructor, leading to Ford’s signing of the All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. She also commended her father’s signing of the Title IX education amendment, which prohibits discrimination based on sex.

One of Ford’s greatest strengths was his ability to listen, Bales said.

“My dad was an impeccable listener,” she said. “He had many great councilors around him.”

That strength was both political and personal.

“He listened to you and normally would not respond at the moment, and I think that is a fair thing,” Bales said. “I always felt heard.”