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Gerald Ford's former security agent says Ford was devoted husband, father

'59 alum Larry Beundorf

Minnesota State Mankato graduate Larry Buendorf is among public officials and celebrities who memorialize former President Gerald Ford in a USA Today story. 1959 alum Beundorf is a retired Secret Service agent who protected Ford in the White House, foiling an assassination attempt by Charles Manson disciple Lynette Squeaky Fromme.

Published in USA Today, from staff and wire reports [12/28/2006]

History records a president's public moments. But private moments reveal much about him, too. Here are a few recollections about Gerald Ford from people who knew him well:

Family first

Gerald Ford
Gerald Ford

Ford put his family ahead of politics, says Stuart Spencer, who managed Ford's 1976 presidential campaign. Spencer and the president both had college-age children while Ford was in the White House.

"One day I was in the Oval Office, and one of his kids had done something he wasn't happy with," Spencer says. "He started talking about that with me because he knew I had kids in the same situation."

Their conversation went over their allotted time, but Ford kept Secretary of State Henry Kissinger waiting outside while they finished, Spencer says.

"That showed me he had his priorities right and had a good values system," says Spencer, now a political consultant in Sacramento.

Devoted father, husband

Ford was devoted to his wife, Betty, and their children, says Larry Buendorf, a retired Secret Service agent who protected Ford in the White House and after he left office.

"When Mrs. Ford gave up drinking, he gave up drinking," says Buendorf, now head of security for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "I traveled with him when she was not around, and he would not touch alcohol."

Buendorf famously foiled a 1975 assassination attempt on Ford by Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme, a disciple of mass murderer Charles Manson. That assassination attempt and another weeks later didn't make Ford "go into isolation," Buendorf says.

"He continued to enjoy meeting the public," Buendorf says. "He was very personable, very courteous to others. He didn't retract."

Cottage cheese and ketchup

Ford tried to swim every evening in an outdoor pool at the White House no matter the weather, says Dorothy Downton, who joined his congressional staff in 1967 and was his personal secretary while he was vice president and president.

He also usually had the same lunch: cottage cheese and ketchup, eaten while reading or doing other work, Downton says.

"He would never just sit back and watch TV or relax. He was always reading something," says Downton, 60, now an administrative assistant for the Associated Press in Detroit.

Ford could take a joke, Downton says. He had some unflattering editorial cartoons framed and hung in Downton's office.

"He really did enjoy that. He did not take himself that seriously that he could not laugh."

No hard feelings

The comic who helped popularize Ford's image as a klutz says Ford was a good sport.

Chevy Chase was an original cast member of Saturday Night Live and made a name for himself and the show by pretending to be an accident-prone Ford.

"He had never been elected, period, so I never felt that he deserved to be there to begin with," the actor says about Ford. "That was just the way I felt then as a young man and as a writer and a liberal.

"Later on, we became friends, and he was a very, very sweet man. He took my wife and (me) on a whole lovely trip through Grand Rapids to show us where he had been as a child and whatnot.

"He was just a terrific guy."

Called to serve

Ford's ascension to the vice presidency was carefully orchestrated, said Melvin Laird, who played a major role in it. A former Wisconsin congressman, Laird was a member of the White House staff in 1973 when President Nixon needed a replacement for Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned after being charged with tax evasion.

Nixon, Laird said, wanted to choose John Connally, the former Texas governor and Treasury secretary who that year switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP.

Laird rounded up a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to visit the White House on behalf of his old congressional colleague Ford. Laird said he called his friend and told him to expect a call making the offer: "I don't want any hemming and hawing. I want you to say yes."

Relaxed photo subject

Ford gave his White House photographer, David Hume Kennerly, unprecedented access. Kennerly, a former photographer for Time magazine, says he attended nearly every presidential event.

The first White House picture Kennerly released made the front page of The Washington Post. It showed Ford with a foot up on the Oval Office desk, with Nixon's old shelves empty in the background.

"It conveyed the difference between Nixon and him, more informal," Kennerly says. "I think that picture was symbolic of the new sheriff in town."

Ford never asked Kennerly to make him look good, and he didn't mind being shown warts and all. "The pictures of him are as honest as the day is long," Kennerly says.

Generous access

Ron Nessen was an NBC reporter who covered Ford as vice president and president before Nessen became White House press secretary in 1974. Ford's inauguration signaled new, friendlier relations between the White House and the news media, a contrast with Nixon's adversarial relationship.

"What you saw was mostly a reflection of Ford's own attitude toward the press. He had friends who were reporters. He liked reporters," Nessen says.

Ford accommodated his staff as well, giving a group of eight top West Wing aides "peeking privileges." That meant they could crack open the Oval Office door, and if Ford was not on the phone or meeting with someone, they could walk in to speak with him.

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