It was 1974 and I was graduating from Carolina and Mike Ford was graduating from Wake Forrest. We had talked about being roomates at Gordon-Conwell where we had both enrolled to go to seminary. He sent me a note in the summer saying it wasn't going to work out. Gordon-Conwell was the seminary that Billy Graham, a Charlottean had recommended, and his associate, my Charlotte neighbor Laden Ford, Billy's associate minister (no relation to the President) was my friend and encouraged me to go.
1974 was an interesting year. All of a sudden Gerald Ford became President, the only non-elected President we have ever had. Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace. I was once given a tour of the White House in 2003 and had a long chat with one of the pages or stewards there who had been there since the time of President Johnson. He had a huge booming voice and was a huge African American man. I asked him what were the hardest days he ever had in the White House. He said it was the day that Nixon resigned and flew off from the White House lawn. He said everyone wept and felt lost.
But the President had lied to us about Watergate, and then had to resign lest he be given his walking papers by Congress. And then a real Christian gentleman had his brief time of fame. It was Gerald Ford, and his son Mike was going off to seminary. No one had expected him to become President. And it changed not only his life, but mine as well, because suddenly Mike Ford was not going to be my roomate. In fact he was going to be followed around by Secret Servicemen all the time during his seminary education. He had decided to go ahead and marry his girl friend Gail, but what a life they were to have-- newly weds sleeping in a tiny apartment at GCTS with two hulking body guards sleeping in the next room and watching their every move. It could not be an easy way to begin a marriage. I was one of the librarians at the seminary library and I remember the day one of the secret service men came to the desk and forlornly asked me "Don't you have anything in this library but religious magazines and books? Not even Sports Illustrated?" I suddenly felt sorry for them, trapped at a seminary doing a thankless job.
And then Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. We all knew what that meant-- a pardon meant he had done something terribly wrong, like other pardoned criminals. Only Nixon was pardoned in advance of any trial. Gerald Ford was convinced it was the right thing to do, even though he took enormous heat for it. He thought it was the Christian thing to do. I remember hearing Mike talk about how hard that was. To pardon and forgive Nixon was not the hard part, and his Dad was sure it was the best way to help the country get beyond 'our long national nightmare'. He was right, but that did not make it easy. And then he had to do something else hard as well-- get the troops out of Vietnam. He believed that was the right decision as well, prayed hard about it-- and again he was right. It won him no prizes. In fact it probably lost him the election in 1976. You see, Gerald Ford was a kind, gentle, quiet, unassuming Christian man from Michigan. And he got hammered for acting on his convictions in both of those cases. It didn't matter he was going to do it anyway.
I remember the day Mike and I graduated in may 1977. President Ford had not been re-elected, but instead of simply going into retirement, he kept a promise he made to his son and others that when his son Mike graduated he would come give the graduation address to us at Gordon- Conwell. And so he did with two hilarious looking secret service men sitting with him in robes on the platform while he told us about what faith it took to be President, and especially to get through the hard times of his wife Betty's cancer which had led many of us to pray and pray. It was the only time I have met a President in person when I walked across the stage that day, and it was the last day I saw Mike Ford until this past week while watching the television presentation of President Ford's funeral. He has been a minister all these years like me, only serving different flocks. His blond hair had gone somewhat grey and thinned out, but he looked good. But he also looked sad and tired-- he loved his father a lot. During all those years of secret service men bird dogging him I never once heard Mike complain. He was like his Dad in that respect.
History will not like conclude that Gerald Ford was our best President ever, after all he served barely two years. But they were two crucial years and he made two crucial decisions-- the right decisions. I do often wish we had some real Christian statesmen like him to pick from in the next election. But ours is a different era where the political parties are much more polarized, and most of the interesting candidates running from either party, at least thus far, have very little experience in Washington, and even those who claim to be Christians, it doesn't much seem to affect their politics and behavior, only their rhetoric.
And so on this night I send out my best thoughts and prayers to Mike and his family, including his Mom. Gerald Ford deserved a better press, and a better historical assessment than he has thus far gotten. He was the very antithesis of Tricky Dick, who schemed and lied and got caught.
Shakespeare once said "some are born to greatness, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Gerald Ford was the latter sort of person, and the true measure of the man was shown when he was equal to the tasks and carried them out with dignity, honesty, and Christian character. May his tribe increase before 2008.