Gerald Ford’s daughter honors parents, encourages future leaders at commencement

GVL / Robert Mathews
President Thomas Haas addressing an audience of graduates and family members during the 2012 Fall Commencement.

Robert Mathews

GVL / Robert Mathews President Thomas Haas addressing an audience of graduates and family members during the 2012 Fall Commencement.

Lizzy Balboa

Though the cheers and whistles at Saturday’s commencement ceremonies came for more than 1,000 Grand Valley State University diploma candidates, the real celebrants seemed to be the people who got them there—the parents both present and absent.

A university video featured the gratitude of students for their parents, distinguished alumna Maryjean Schenk received her award on the same stage where her daughter would momentarily receive a diploma, and speaker Susan Ford Bales spoke fondly of the influence and service of her father and mother, who received an honorary doctorate from GVSU nearly 10 years before.

Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford, reflected on the life she shared with her parents in the White House and on the public stage.

She specifically highlighted Betty Ford’s public battle with breast cancer and the way her life and the U.S. changed because of the way she handled it.

“I had to assume her official responsibilities as first lady,” Ford Bales said. “But more importantly I witnessed my mother battling her breast cancer. She did so in a way that was highly controversial at the time. Nearly forty years later, we take for granted that fighting breast cancer should be done as Mom did: open and candid, without secrets or shame.”

To honor her mother’s honest methods, she requested the audience to raise their hands if they had ever known someone struggling with breast cancer.

She commended her mother’s courage to tell the world about her disease and noted it as a public service. “You raised your hands without shame and without fear,” Ford Bales said. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. A finer tribute to Betty Ford and her public fight against breast cancer could never be.”

She detailed the public service of her father, who served as a military and political leader during rough times of U.S. history.

“Americans were initially unsure of where or how the son of Grand Rapids could lead them,” she said. “But Americans witnessed a moment of renewal when Gerald Ford laid his hand on the Bible and swore to protect, preserve and defend the constitution of the United States.”

The former president led the recovering country away from the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War, an act that his daughter recognizes now as an act of service.

“Grand Rapids and its institutions, including this university, formed the core of Gerald and Betty Ford’s lifetime of service,” Ford Bales said. “And not surprisingly, it’s from this community that I inherited their passion for public service and their commitment to improve the lives of others.”
She then challenged the graduates to an equally influential life of generosity.

“Graduates, I’m sure you’re aware that pundits and social critics are often critical of your generation,” she said. “They claim this new generation is unlike the so-called greatest generation. They gave so often, sacrificed so much, and your generation, they say, is selfish and unwilling to sacrifice.”

But Ford Bales holds a different perspective.“Perhaps it’s because I listened to Dad’s stories of his service as a naval officer and then as Commander-in-Chief sending young people into harm’s way,” she said. “Perhaps it’s because I watched Mother comfort countless young women who had breast cancer or encourage and reassure young patients and their families overcoming addiction at the Betty Ford Center. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been able to work side-by-side with numbers and numbers of your remarkable generation on a variety of public service projects.”

She paid tribute to all young people in the military—particularly those seated at the commencement ceremony—for their contributions to the country, but requested that more graduates participate in acts of public service.

“So today, and in every tomorrow, go forth with passion,” Ford Bales said. “Make your confidence and that of my parents in you and your generation a shining beacon of freedom for all.”
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