Centennial Celebration honored the legacy of former First Lady Betty Ford

The sixth annual America's First Ladies luncheon, held Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Grand Rapids, honored the legacy of West Michigan’s own Betty Ford. (WWMT/Franque Thompson)

The legacy of West Michigan’s own Betty Ford was honored Wednesday, on what would have been her 100th birthday, during the sixth annual America's First Ladies luncheon.

Distinguished guests for the Grand Rapids event included former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter Lynda Bird Johnson Robb. NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell moderated the event.

“Being a lady does not require silence,” are words once spoken by the former First Lady. Hundreds gathered at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park to honor Ford's work. Lisa McCubbin said she has spent the past two years researching and writing about Ford. McCubbin is scheduled to publish a biography, with input from Ford’s children, in September 2018.

“What a trailblazer she was and how courageous she was and I think she'll inspire a whole new generation of women,” McCubbin said.

“She faced life with great adventure,” Johnson Robb said. “I think first ladies have an opportunity to educate the population about a lot of very, very important issues.”

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Clinton reflected on Ford’s advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment and her personal life.

“Betty Ford as the first lady speaking out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment was astonishing,” Clinton said. “[She] was so open and honest and personal about the struggles. But the she went on and she campaigned for better breast cancer treatment. She certainly blew away the stigma.”

“She chose to say 'I have struggled with addiction' when no one really wanted to talk about that subject,” said a member of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.

Her struggle with addiction led the founding of the Betty Ford Center.

“I visited the Betty Ford Center with her years and years ago, and that facility has such a well-earned, world-class reputation and she made that happen,” Clinton said.

The Betty Ford Center is where her children said treatments and programs she pioneered are now more important than ever.

“With the opioid crisis in our country and prescription drugs that would be very disturbing to her, and she would be really getting after all those who have contributed to that problem,” said Michael Ford, one of her sons. “She would be both a champion to fight the crisis as well as to care for those who are suffering from it.”

Her daughter, Susan Ford Bales, praised her mother's work regarding breast cancer.

"Yes, she made a huge difference in the breast cancer movement,” Susan Ford Bales said. “There's still such a stigma and shamefulness involved in drugs and alcohol. And I think she lived that on a day-to-day basis and I think that's something that she would've continued to promote.”

Clinton explained her own advocacy in addressing foreign policy and reflected on her time as a first lady. She stressed the importance of women continuing to use their voices and platforms to make a difference in the world.

“The work that [Betty] did was just like a thunderclap. People felt it, believed it, were in awe of it,” Clinton said.

McCubbin said Ford offered a framework for today's women taking action.

“We need to be heard and we need to be treated equally and fairly," McCubbin said. "And when the challengers arise, just face them with courage just like Betty Ford did."

Donations from the centennial celebration will help to fund education opportunities through the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.

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