“You never know what you can do until you have to do it.”- Betty Ford
During her lifetime, Betty Ford accomplished and overcame many things. Through the many changes and difficulties in Mrs. Ford’s life, she never gave up and seemed able to conquer any obstacle. Our country will always remember her as an over-comer and an inspiration to everyone.
On April 8, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois, Elizabeth Ann Bloomer was born to William Stephenson Bloomer and Hortense Neahr. Shortly after she was born, her family moved from Chicago to Denver, Colorado. By the time she was two years old, she moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she lived for most of her life.
Dancing was a very important part of Betty’s life. She attended Callas Travis Dance Studio in Grand Rapids from 1926 -1935. From 1935 until 1937, Betty ran a small dance studio. The studio was held in a small rented space and was called Betty Bloomer’s Dance School. For each child that attended, Betty earned 50 cents. She also pursued dance while attending Bennington College School of Dance during the summers of 1937 and 1938. After studying at Bennington College, Betty met her biggest role model, Martha Graham, who gave her an opportunity to study at her school in New York. While she was in New York, Betty danced with the Martha Graham Auxiliary Dance Company. Although she was never able to travel the country with the dance company, Betty did perform with them in New York and at least one show at Carnegie Hall.
While in high school, Betty got her first job at Herpolschimer’s Department Store. She worked as a model for teen and young adult clothing, earning 3 dollars every time she appeared. Having worked at Herpolscheimer’s also opened doors for Betty as she got older. During her first marriage, because her husband was a traveling salesman, she relocated to several different cities. While in these cities, she used her experience to get modeling and merchandising jobs at other department stores. When she returned to Michigan, she was able to return to Herpolscheimer’s, where she worked for many more years.
Betty’s first marriage was to William Warren in 1942. William was a furniture and insurance salesman. The couple moved around numerous times while they were married. They were married until the end of 1947. The couple separated because of all the traveling and William’s alcoholism. When Betty first filed for divorce, she found out that William was suffering from a coma in New York. She took care of him while he recovered, during which time they lived with William’s parents. As soon as he was recovered, Betty proceeded with the divorce. The divorce was finalized on December 15, 1947.
Betty Bloomer never dreamed of being involved in politics, but that all changed when she met a young lawyer named Gerald Ford. They were introduced by mutual friends. Gerald proposed to Betty in February of 1948, but the couple did not announce their engagement until June of that year, after Ford had won the Republican Congressional nomination. The couple was married two weeks before the election and relocated to Washington D.C. two and a half months after they were married. As the wife of a congressman, Betty Ford strived to educate herself on the political process. While her husband was in office, Betty became a tour guide for her husband’s constituents; she also joined the Congressional Club and became the director of the Congressional Wives Prayer Group.
Because her husband was so busy while serving as a congressman, Betty was forced to act as both a mother and father figure to their 4 children. She became a Cub Scout den mother, a Sunday school teacher, a member of the teacher’s association, and a driver to little league games and dance classes. Public image was also a large part of Betty Ford’s life. To keep up her image, she became an active member in the 81st Congress Club and the National Federation of Republic Women. She also used her modeling experience to pose for publicity shoots and charity fashion shows. In addition to all of the political organizations she was involved in, Betty Ford also became Program Director of the Alexandria Cancer Fund Drive.
Unfortunately, in 1964, all of these activities became harder to handle for Betty Ford. While opening a window, she pinched a nerve on the left side of her neck, which caused muscle spasms, periphrastic neuropathy (a condition that results when the nerves connected to the brain and the spinal cord are damaged), a numbed left neck, shoulder and arm, and arthritis. Throughout the rest of her life, Betty Ford had to be cautious of these injuries. Because of the pain she was enduring, her doctors prescribed pain killers for her, which Betty became dependent upon.
This pain was also flared up by stress, and because of her busy schedule as the wife of a congressman, she would sometimes have “mental breakdowns.” Betty Ford overcame this problem by seeking professional help. She attended weekly therapy meetings from late 1965 until early 1967. As a political wife, Betty Ford also attended many cocktail parties and was constantly surrounded by alcohol. Consequently, she became dependent on alcohol in addition to the pain killers.
In 1972, after Gerald Ford had been a congressman for 24 years, the couple decided that he would run for the last time in 1974. This plan, however, changed when Mr. Ford was appointed to Vice President in 1973 after Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign. Suddenly, Betty was put into the position of being 2nd Lady. She was the Vice President’s wife for only 9 months, during which time she focused on charities and projects involving the disabled and the arts. One of the largest things she supported was called the Art Train. It was a train that traveled the southern part of the country and invited people to come and see different types of art.
Since public image was so important to Mrs. Ford, she did her best to keep a good name for the administration during the Watergate Scandal. When President Nixon resigned in 1974, Mr. Ford became president. During his inauguration speech, Gerald Ford was the only president to mention his wife, saying, “I am indebted to no man and only one woman, my dear wife Betty, as I begin this very difficult job.” Betty stood by her husband while he struggled to keep the country together. While she was first lady, Betty Ford became known as one of the most candid first ladies. Whenever she was interviewed, she answered every question openly, about any topic, including her health problems.
On September 26, 1974, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. At that time, breast cancer was more of a taboo subject than it is today. Regardless, after she underwent a mastectomy, the Fords talked very openly about Betty’s breast cancer. Her openness about her cancer influenced women all over the world; she encouraged women everywhere to get mammograms. This openness about the cancer also changed the way the world viewed the disease and made it easier for women everywhere to fight it. During an interview, Betty told Time magazine, “When other women have this same operation, it doesn’t make any headlines. But the fact that I was the wife of the president put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I’m sure I’ve saved at least one person—maybe more.” That year she was also given the Woman of the Year award by Time Magazine.
Betty Ford was first lady for 3 years, when the campaign for President Ford’s reelection began. During the campaign, Betty kept a busy schedule and played a very public role even through her ongoing health problems. One of the most popular slogans during the campaign was, “Vote for Betty’s husband.” She toured the country giving speeches for her husband, but unfortunately, Jimmy Carter was elected president. Because Gerald Ford had come down with laryngitis during the last few days of the campaign, Betty was forced to give his concession speech for him. This made her the only candidate’s wife to ever give a concession speech.
After the campaign, Betty was still suffering from her dependence on pain killers and alcohol. Her family decided that it was time for her to overcome her dependency and staged an intervention. Betty realized the severity of her problem and overcame both of her addictions. After her recovery, she opened the Betty Ford Center in California. It is a place for people who struggle with substance abuse.
After leaving the White House, Betty still lived a very active and influential life. She was a large supporter of the Woman’s Rights Movement during the 1970s. Betty Ford was honored with several awards during and after she was first lady, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991. In 1999, Mr. and Mrs. Ford received the Congressional Gold Medal because of the exceptional way they held the country together while in office.
Betty Ford was an amazing woman who had a great influence on the country simply by being herself and doing what she felt was important. Mrs. Ford died on July 8, 2011; she will always be remembered for the obstacles that she overcame.
“I was an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time. I was no different once I became first lady than I had been before. But, through an accident of history, I had become interesting to people.” –Betty Ford
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