- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

PALM DESERT, Calif. — Borne by eight servicemen in crisp dress uniforms, Gerald R. Ford’s flag-draped casket was carried past his widow into their hometown church yesterday for a public viewing that marked the start of six days of mourning for the former president.

Former first lady Betty Ford, 88, stood atop the broad steps of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church to receive the casket. A Marine Corps band struck up “Hail to the Chief” as the coffin of the Navy veteran of World War II was removed from a hearse, then played the hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past” as the military pallbearers, moving in lockstep, made the slow climb to the doors of the white-columned church.

“We receive the body of our brother, Gerald, for burial,” said the church rector, the Rev. Robert Certain.

Mrs. Ford, clutching the arm of an Army general, stood in silence for a few moments after the casket was laid before a blond-wood altar and three wreaths of white flowers. Then she led other family members to the Presidents Pew, where she and her husband sat nearly every Sunday after leaving the White House in 1977.

The private family service was followed by a visitation for invited friends, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Rep. Jack Kemp and former California Gov. Pete Wilson. When it ended, Mrs. Ford left in a motorcade to return to the Ford home in the neighboring city of Rancho Mirage.

A public viewing expected to draw thousands to the resort community 110 miles east of Los Angeles started late yesterday.

The event was an hour behind schedule when buses began bringing people from a tennis center five miles away. Mourners ranging from children to the elderly walked through the church quickly, then reboarded the buses, a process taking less than two minutes.

Several men stopped and snapped salutes. One woman wore a red, white and blue scarf. No official count was kept, but buses carrying about 50 people each came and went steadily.

Earlier, a Boeing 747 from the presidential fleet descended in the distance toward Palm Springs airport as a motorcade brought Mr. Ford’s casket and family to the church. As the procession passed, police saluted and residents of the desert resort community watched silently.

Mrs. Ford planned to accompany her husband’s body across the country today to Washington, where the nation’s 38th president will lie in state at the Capitol. A funeral will be held on Tuesday at the National Cathedral. Mr. Ford will be buried on Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he grew up.

Security was tight at St. Margaret’s. The Secret Service swept the area, and surrounding residential streets were blocked off. Helicopters hovered overhead.

A solemn crowd watched from well beyond the parking lot of the church, not far from the former president’s Rancho Mirage home.

Among the spectators was Evelyn Tidholm, 80, a visitor from Oklahoma who said she voted for Mr. Ford in 1976. “I just have never seen anything like this. I thought that at my age it’s something that I should see,” she said.

Mr. Ford, who assumed the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 during the Watergate scandal, died Tuesday at 93.

Some mourners arrived early, including a father and son from Irvine, Calif., who showed up before dawn.

“I want to be president one day, so anything presidential, I’m here” said Aaron Magness, a freshman at the University of Oklahoma.

He and his father, Jay Magness, arrived at 5 a.m. expecting the kind of turnout that occurred for former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral in 2004. By midafternoon yesterday, about 100 people were waiting.

Harvey Soldan, 51, of Riverside, Calif., wore a Ford-Dole sticker on his shirt from his days as a 1976 campaign worker. He also had expected huge crowds.

The major stock markets will be closed Tuesday as part of a national day of mourning. The Wall Street tradition dates to the 1885 burial of President Ulysses S. Grant and was last observed after Mr. Reagan’s death.

Some of the more regal touches of a full state funeral are being bypassed, by request of Mr. Ford’s family and, most likely, according to his own wishes. In Washington, a hearse rather than a horse-drawn caisson will take the former president’s casket to the Capitol.

Fighter jets will do a flyover with a “missing man” formation only in Grand Rapids, where Mr. Ford will be buried on a hillside near his presidential museum. He spent most of his childhood in Grand Rapids, practiced law there and represented the area in Congress for 25 years.

Associated Press writers Allison Hoffman in Palm Desert, Joe Bel Bruno in New York and Calvin Woodward and Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this article.

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