Dec 28 2006
By Alvin Benn
Former President Gerald Ford visited the Heart of Dixie often -- to stump for fellow Republicans, to raise money for charity -- and once paid his respects at the gravesite of an Alabamian who like him had been the nation's second in command.
Always, Ford left those who met him convinced that his conscience was his guide. The man from Michigan, after all, had by chance taken on the burden of guiding a nation disillusioned by the war in Vietnam and the scandal of Watergate.
In Aug. 9, 1974, the resignation of Richard M. Nixon meant the ascent of Gerald R. Ford. Less than a year earlier, he had been plucked from Congress by Nixon to replace a disgraced vice president, Spiro T. Agnew.
"He was a man of the hour, a person picked by destiny to do a tough job," said former Secretary of State Jim Bennett.
Perry Hooper Sr., a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, called Ford "a man of high principles and of all the people I've known, I've never met a finer gentleman."
Other Alabama leaders -- past and present -- echoed the former officials' sentiments as the country mourned the loss of Ford, who died late Tuesday at age 93.
Gov. Bob Riley ordered flags flown at half staff at all state buildings. Riley described the former president as "a great man."
"He served the country at a crucial time in American history and brought a sense of honor to the White House," Riley said.
Alabama's two Republican senators -- Richard Shelby of Tuscaloosa and Jeff Sessions of Mobile -- praised Ford for restoring Americans' confidence in their government.
"President Ford united this country and moved it forward during a difficult time," Shelby said. "We will be forever grateful for his service and dedication to this nation."
Sessions noted that Ford "never sought the presidency," but rose to the challenge of the Oval Office. The former president, he said, "will be remembered for his modesty, integrity and bedrock decency."
In his first month in office, Ford made several appointments. One was the selection of Montgomerian Will Hill Tankersley to be deputy assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.
Tankersley, a former Army general, recalled Ford at meetings of the Armed Forces Policy Council. The president listened to the reports, then made recommendations he thought were necessary.
"There was no small talk with Gerald Ford," said Tankersley, vice chairman emeritus of the financial services company Sterne, Agee & Leach. "He was as straight an arrow as any man I've ever met."
Whether Ford accepted an invitation to speak in Birmingham or to open a civic center in Selma, he was eager to please, according to those who invited him.
Selma Councilwoman Jean Martin recalled how gracious Ford was 25 years ago when he attended the grand opening of the Selma Performing Arts Center. The former president allowed his name to be used to help raise scholarship funds for Dallas County students.
Martin remembered how she and other local leaders escorted Ford to the grave of Selma native William Rufus King, the only vice president ever to take the oath of office on foreign soil.
While Ford was vice president only eight months, King was second in command to Franklin Pierce less than a month. King died on his plantation in Dallas County after taking office in Cuba, where he had traveled for health reasons.
"We walked through part of the cemetery, and we talked," Martin recalled. "He said it was an honor for him to be in Selma."
Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, outgoing chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, remembered Ford for his kindness when she was a young party staff worker several years ago.
"I was in Washington for a meeting of our national committee and met him for the first time," she said in an interview a few months ago, when Ford became ill. "I was 27 and starstruck, especially after he asked me what I did for the party."
Cavanaugh recalled Ford saying: "I never had a photo with you, and I need one with Twinkle."
The Rev. John Ed Mathison, pastor at Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church, recalled how he met Ford at the former Governors House Hotel more than two decades ago.
"We talked for about 10 minutes. What struck me was how perceptive and how geniune he was," Mathison said. "A president or former president is awesome to see, but what I found was he was just human."