California Says Goodbye to Gerald Ford

Family and friends of former President Gerald Ford attended private services Friday at a church in Palm Desert, Calif. Thousands lined up through the night to pay their respects.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

The Southern California desert community that's been home to Gerald and Betty Ford for the past 30 years yesterday paid its respects to the late president. Long lines of people filed through St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert. It's the Fords' church and a place where they got to know their neighbors. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports that's how many people that will remember Mr. Ford - as a neighbor.

Unidentified Man #1: Hi folks. Do you have a camera, a cell phone or a bag with you?

Unidentified Man #2: No.

Man #1: All right. Straight through the gate.

Man #2: All right. Thank you.

INA JAFFE: The memorial visit to the church where Gerald Ford was lying in repose began with a trip to the local tennis stadium. That's where thousands of people caught buses that took them up to St. Margaret's last night for a swift, silent walk past his casket.

KAYLA HAMIL: We stood in line, and yes, it was long, but you get in there and it's just like you're looking at the casket and the flag and it's like, wow.

JAFFE: Fifteen-year-old Kayla Hamil was there with her mother Jody(ph). They live in nearby La Quinta.

JODY HAMIL: We're never going to have a president that was our neighbor, that was a friend, especially to the Coachella Valley.

JAFFE: The Coachella Valley, or just the valley to locals, is the location of Palms Springs, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, La Quinta and a patchwork of nearly two dozen little cities.

HAMIL: He helped a lot of organizations. Big Brothers, Big Sisters, the YMCA - many things. Many things, both he and his wife.

JAFFE: Several people remember the Fords as friendly, approachable, regular folks. Deborah Stone(ph) of Palm Desert saw the former president lots of times when he attended meetings at the hotel where she used to work.

DEBORAH STONE: I've just had a very high opinion of him. He did a very difficult thing in pardoning Nixon. It was very, very difficult to know if it was the right thing to do at the time. And I think it turned out to be the right thing.

JAFFE: Did you vote for Mr. Ford?

STONE: No. I was a Democrat, actually, at the time.

JAFFE: So your respect for him isn't necessarily tied to political party?

STONE: No. Not at all.

JAFFE: Even for those who couldn't really call Gerald Ford a neighbor, he still sort of seemed like one. Chris McTide(ph) drove down from the Los Angeles area with his wife and six-year-old son. A native of Ohio, he saw Mr. Ford as a fellow Midwesterner, with Midwestern virtues.

CHRIS MCTIDE: He's a pretty straightforward, honest guy. And if you understand his story and where he came from, he gives everybody in this country, including my son, you know, an opportunity to become the president of the United States, if you work hard and you make the best out of the circumstances that life presents to you. And that's the lesson I'm trying to teach my son.

JAFFE: A lesson for the children was the reason a lot of adults gave for being there last night. Phil Brennan(ph) of New York City had been on a Disneyland vacation with his family. Now they just finished their trip to St. Margaret's.

PHIL BRENNAN: We kind of felt it was a significant event to go. Because when I turned 18, I was able to vote president and I voted for Gerry Ford. So that's my connection.

JAFFE: And eight-year-old Jennifer's assessment.

JENNIFER BRENNAN: It's okay.

JAFFE: What have they told you about Mr. Ford?

BRENNAN: Nothing much.

BRENNAN: We're encouraging her to study about the U.S. presidents a little more. Maybe this will help her.

JAFFE: One more good cause Mr. Ford might gladly support, according to his neighbors in this desert valley.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Palm Desert, California.

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