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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, flowers, flags, and personal notes line the entrance of the Gerald R. Ford Museum. Gerald Ford called Grand Rapids his home from childhood until his presidency. Many who are paying their respects remember a man who was thrust into power, never losing his personal touch.

Kevin Lavery of member station WKAR reports.

KEVIN LAVERY: As the giant American flag at half-staff outside the Ford Museum rustles in the wind, small groups of people trickle into the building's glass enclosed vestibule to sign a condolence book. A large portrait of Michigan's native son looks on. Carrie Hudenko(ph) awoke yesterday to the news of Mr. Ford's death and wasted no time making her pilgrimage.

Ms. CARRIE HUDENKO: So as soon as we could get everybody out, we started our memorial. And we did a poster and cards, and candles, and flowers. And we got done here as soon as we could and we brought our neighbors. And we're just very glad to come down here and share our story with everyone.

LAVERY: Hudenko treasures a plain yellow folder that holds a picture of her relative, Marianne Campbell(ph), a Grand Rapids public school teacher. She taught the future first lady Betty Ford seven decades ago. Next to her picture is a 1967 from the Fords congratulating her on her retirement. That's the Gerald Ford that lives in Grand Rapids' collective memory, a man who remembered his roots and fostered old ties.

When he took the reins of a nation battered by scandal and war, Margaret Panicki(ph) was a young mother struggling with her own hardships. In those years, she saw a role model not only in the president but in the first lady.

Ms. MARGARET PANICKI: She went through quite a bit of what I went through in recovery. She went through recovery, and that's what I what I went through; addicted to drugs and alcohol. And that really meant a lot to me, too. I could relate to them.

LAVERY: Gerald Ford kept relating to people long after his time in the White House. Brian McKay(ph) was 12 years old the day he shook the president's hand. But it was a more recent event, Mr. Ford's 90th birthday celebration in Grand Rapids, that stands out in his mind.

Mr. BRIAN MCKAY: After he did a very wonderful speech, and I was very - I couldn't believe how sharp he was. He turned and he knocked the microphone cover off the mic. And as he turned to look at that, he turned over and hit the other microphone cover off in true Chevy Chase form. I started laughing. My daughter didn't know why I was laughing, but we all got a good chuckle out of it.

LAVERY: A few miles from the museum, Tim England remembers Gerald Ford in a more personal way. He co-owns the home on Union Street where the college football star turned commander-in-chief grew up. Mr. Ford lived in this American foursquare bungalow from age eight until he was 17. He played poker with his pals in the garage in the back. There are historic markers outside, though it's still a private residence, and Tim England says people sometimes walk in unannounced.

Mr. TIM ENGLAND: There's a gut feeling, or a feeling in your heart of sincerity that they're actually here because they have memories of President Ford. Or they come because they truly remember the man and they want to continue their historical journey, so to speak.

LAVERY: For many Americans, Gerald Ford will remain the man who pardoned Richard Nixon after the political carnage of Watergate. But in Grand Rapids, he'll always be Gerry, the politician with the Midwest sensibilities that helped heal a nation.

For NPR News, I'm Kevin Lavery.

MONTAGNE: Friends and colleagues of Gerald Ford offer personal recollections of the former president at npr.org.

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