LS: History Here an Now Column October 24, 2008

President Ford was frequent visitor to GJ

Few events are more exciting than watching Air Force One, with a sitting president aboard, arrive at your hometown airport.

However, that was a common sight from mid-1974 through 1976, when Grand Junction frequently welcomed President Gerald Ford, en route to or from his vacation home at Beaver Creek.

Ford liked to ski and golf at Vail, and what was then Walker Field provided the closest and safest landing for Air Force One.

Of course there were hundreds of inches of type, radio and television space devoted to Ford’s western Colorado visits. But here are some stories that never made it into type.

Ford first came to Grand Junction in late 1974, a few months after he became president following
Richard Nixon’s resignation. He was campaigning for the late U.S. Sen. Peter Dominick. The two men were on a platform erected in the middle of Lincoln Park football field, with thousands of spectators jammed around.

The Washington press corps had a special “pen” near the platform, but local news groups were left to fend for themselves. I — covering for The Daily Sentinel — was hanging around one of the stadium entryways, hoping to see and take notes. Then, Col. Wayne Keith, head of the Colorado State Patrol, coordinator of security for the visit and a longtime friend, asked, “Would you like to go onto the field?”

Sounded good to me, so I headed onto the field, pausing as I went, to ask a nearby Secret Service man if that was OK. “Sure,” he said. “Just don’t get too close to the podium.”

A few minutes later, as I was wondering what on earth I was going to do now that I was near the president, a voice bellowed over the loud speaker. “Get that woman off the field.” Two new Secret Service men hustled me back to the stadium, where Ron Nessen,  presidential press secretary, told me “get out.”

Keith, standing nearby, said, “I’ll vouch for her.” Nessen snarled, “Get her out of here and out of the stadium.” Keith escorted me to the stadium entrance, looked around, saw that Nessen had gone away, and motioned me back inside the entryway, where I could see, hear and take notes.

I got back at Nessen in spring 1975 when Ford visited Rifle oil shale sites at the invitation of the late Rep. Wayne Aspinall, 4th District congressman. Aspinall asked if I wanted to meet Ford, his friend from congressional days. After we were introduced, an obliging Associated Press photographer snapped a picture, which I still have. I appear to be explaining to Ford how the nation should be run.

Ford looks as though he is deeply interested in what I am saying, and Nessen, slightly behind us, just looks testy.

I cannot recall how many times Ford and his retinue came into Grand Junction in those two years.

There were almost always hundreds on hand to see Ford disembark Air Force One, usually circle the field to shake a few hands, then board the presidential helicopter.

What a contrast there was between Ford’s 1974–76 visits and his last public appearance in Grand Junction as the ex-president. When Ford arrived in Grand Junction (I think in mid-1977) to speak, a Sentinel photographer and I were the only media representatives and the only spectators on hand as he landed in a small plane at a private landing strip.

I hesitantly asked the accompanying Secret Service agent if I could talk to the ex-president. ”Of course,” he said and led me to Ford.

At the Republican luncheon that followed, there were quite a few empty chairs.

A news conference later that day drew the usual assortment of television, radio and newspaper reporters, asking the usual questions of an “elder statesman.” Whatever my question may have been,

I prefaced it with “Mr. President,” the customary address for a former chief executive.

But one brash young radio reporter had a different approach: “Gerry,” he addressed the ex-president, and then asked his question. In what I thought was the epitome of class, Ford didn’t flinch or frown at the familiarity, but simply smiled and answered.


Mary Louise Giblin Henderson covered politics for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in Novato, Calif.

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