Betty Ford Remembered At California Service

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Former First Lady Betty Ford's funeral was held Tuesday in Palm Desert, Calif. Among the speakers were former first lady Rosalyn Carter and the head of the Betty Ford Clinic. Ford will be laid to rest in Michigan on Thursday.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Former First Lady Betty Ford was honored yesterday by family, friends and dignitaries in Palm Desert, California. Ford died last Friday at the age of 93. About 800 people turned out for the memorial service. The eulogies talked about the many ways Mrs. Ford touched the lives of others.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates was there.

(Soundbite of music)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Three former first ladies joined Michelle Obama in the front pew of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church for the funeral mass for Betty Ford. A frail Nancy Reagan walked in slowly, leaning on the arm of former President George W. Bush. Once seated, he conversed warmly with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Michelle Obama sat next to her, chatting quietly with Rosalynn Carter, one of Mrs. Ford's closest friends, despite the fact that their husbands were once fierce political rivals.

Ms. ROSALYNN CARTER: Betty Ford was my friend, and I'm honored to be here today. I never imagined when we first met 40 years ago that we would develop such a close, personal friendship.

BATES: Mrs. Carter was one of three eulogists Mrs. Ford requested years before. She spoke of how the two, despite belonging to opposite political parties, often worked together on mental health and women's rights issues.

Ms. CARTER: She would round up the Republicans. I would round up the Democrats, and I think we were fairly effective most of the time.

BATES: Mrs. Ford was very effective in removing the stigma from two personal traumas - cancer and addiction.

Mr. JEFF MASON (Betty Ford Center): Good afternoon. I'm Jeff. I'm an alcoholic.

BATES: Jeffrey Mason, her colleague at the Betty Ford Center, spoke about how Mrs. Ford's willingness to share her own struggles with prescription painkillers and alcohol encouraged him and thousands of others to continue that fight. Yesterday, he spoke directly to his friend Betty.

Mr. MASON: And you said something that I've never forgotten. You said that you had discovered that you were allergic to alcohol. That, Betty, made it understandable.

BATES: NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts reminded those present that Betty Ford was the first first lady to broaden the highly visible, unpaid position by insisting on retaining her personal authenticity.

COKIE ROBERTS: Before her sudden ascension to first lady, she said: I'll move to the White House, do the best I can. And if they don't like it, they can kick me out, but they can't make me be somebody I'm not.

BATES: The former first ladies assembled there nodded in agreement.

The service was heavily infused with the affection and admiration of family. Her three sons contributed scripture readings. Michael Ford departed from I Corinthians to speak of his mother's six-decade union with his father.

Mr. MICHAEL FORD: Or as she called him, my boyfriend for 58 years of marriage.

BATES: Outside, people in this desert community came to praise Mrs. Ford's inspirational example. Mary Pike was one.

Ms. MARY PIKE: She's one of the finest ladies on the planet. You know, she's been through just about everything possible and endured and just carried on.

BATES: This morning, Betty Ford's remains will be flown to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where on Thursday, she will be interred next to her boyfriend of 58 year on what would've been his 98th birthday.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Palm Desert, California.

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