As a Scouter, you’re most likely more familiar with American history and civics than most people. You also probably know which U.S. president:
- was never elected to national office?
- was the only one from the state of Michigan?
- was the only one to attend the University of Michigan?
- was the only president to grant a pardon to another president?
- was the only Eagle Scout to serve as president?
I’m referring, of course, to the thirty-eighth President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, whose 103rd birthday we observe this week.
President Ford took office during a turbulent time in our nation’s history – upon the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Mr. Nixon was embroiled in the scandal surrounding the cover-up following the break-in by Republican operatives at the Democratic campaign headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex. Mr. Ford, a long-serving congressman from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was serving as Mr. Nixon’s appointed vice-president after Spiro T. Agnew resigned the vice-presidency due to unrelated charges of federal income tax evasion less than a year earlier. Anyone who was alive and paying attention to the news then remembers vividly the chains of events leading up to Mr. Ford’s becoming the unlikely President of the United States.
He wasn’t always known as Gerald Ford. Born July 14, 1913, he was named Leslie King, but his biological father was abusive and separated from his mother shortly after he was born. He took the name of his stepfather after his mother remarried but didn’t legally change his name until many years later.
Scouting was still in its relative infancy when Mr. Ford joined Troop 15 in Grand Rapids at the age of 11. He enjoyed being a Scout and earned the rank of Eagle Scout four years later, as a freshman at Central High School. “One of the proudest moments of my life,” he later remarked, “came in the court of honor when I was awarded the Eagle Scout badge. I still have that badge. It is a treasured possession.”
His experience in the Boy Scouts continued to guide his life and his career of service. Graduating from the University of Michigan in 1935, where he played on two of the Wolverines’ last national championship football teams, he was recruited by both the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions, but instead chose to attend Yale University to pursue a law degree. Upon passing the bar (and serving a short stint as a football coach for the Elis), Mr. Ford returned to Michigan to begin practicing law, and in 1948 decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan’s fifth district. He won that election and held the seat continuously until he was tapped to become Mr. Nixon’s vice-president in 1973.
Mr. Ford was awarded the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award in 1970 by the Grand Valley Council, which was later renamed in his honor the Gerald R. Ford Council (now the President Ford Field Service Council of the Michigan Crossroads Council). He later was also bestowed the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest award granted by the BSA, for his meritorious service to our nation.
As is customary, Mr. Ford also served as the honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America during his tenure as President of the United States. In 1974, he spoke at the Boy Scouts’ annual award dinner and offered this observation, as appropriate for the times then as it is now:
It has recently been said that I am too much of a Boy Scout in the way I have conducted myself as President, and so I reviewed the Boy Scout laws and Boy Scout oath.
They say that a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. That is not bad for somebody who knew it 46 years ago.
And the Boy Scout oath is, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout laws, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
Well, if these are not the goals of the people of the United States, what they want their President to live up to, then I must draw this conclusion: Either you have the wrong man or I have the wrong country, and I don’t believe either is so.
Mr. Ford passed away December 26, 2006. In tribute, over four hundred Boy Scouts in uniform lined the road leading to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum at the memorial service in his hometown of Grand Rapids – more than twice the number that his family had asked for. His Eagle Scout uniform is on display at that museum, along with this quote:
My early years as a Boy Scout were invaluable in helping to shape the course of my later life. Throughout my public service and extensive travels around our country, I have seen firsthand evidence of the immeasurable worth of the basic values taught by Scouting programs.
The Scout Oath to help other people, to keep physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight and to do one’s duty to God and to our country provides a solid base on which to build both individual and national strength.
The three great principles which Scouting encourages – self-discipline, teamwork and moral and patriotic values – are the building blocks of character. By working for these principles, those who belong to and support the Boy Scouts of America add greatly to the vitality of our society and to the future well-being of its people.
Despite the circumstances of his becoming president, the controversy surrounding his pardon of Richard Nixon, and his loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, Gerald Ford was the leader that America needed at the time. His long devotion to public service, with values instilled by the Boy Scouts of America, helped to heal America’s soul shattered by an unpopular war and a political scandal. It’s not likely we’ll see another Eagle Scout in the White House any time soon, but we can all help forge a stronger America by instilling and espousing the values of our Oath and Law.
A personal footnote: Though I never met President Ford, I have several connections to the man and his heritage. My mother, Bernice Maynard, was a native of Grand Rapids and was born only a few months after Mr. Ford. She grew up in another part of Grand Rapids and graduated from Union High School the same year as Mr. Ford’s graduation from Central High. She and my father corresponded regularly with Mr. Ford when he was a congressman, assisting in several of his election campaigns, and has letters from Mr. Ford which she cherished. And as another coincidence, my son Parker was also born on July 14, as was my sister-in-law Susan Barry, who was also a lawyer and who also graduated from the University of Michigan. And if you ever find yourself in either Grand Rapids or Ann Arbor, Michigan, take a few hours to visit his museum or library. They are fascinating places that will stir your sense of American history and help you appreciate the contributions of our Eagle Scout president.
Image: Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum