He was the kind of guy you might see shopping at a local grocery store or sitting in the stands at T.C. Williams High School. Yet after unexpectedly becoming vice president in 1973, Gerald Ford became a kind of low-key local celebrity. A few months later, he delivered the keynote address for T.C. Williams’ graduating class in 1974 where his son Steven was a student. But neighbors could still spot him swimming in his pool every morning.
All that would change in a matter of months, as a series of events would move the former House minority leader from his modest house on Crown View Drive — where he had lived with his family since 1955 — to the executive mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue. When President Richard Nixon announced his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974, many Alexandrians were eager to join the chorus of praise for America’s new unelected president.
“Never during my six years I served as mayor did he or his family fail to help the city in any way they could,” said former Mayor Frank Mann, who was serving in the House of Delegates at the time. “They went out of their way to be good people.”
<b>AFTER MONTHS OF</B> speculation during the Watergate scandal — described by one Nixon aide as a “growing cancer on the presidency” — the vice president’s Alexandria home became a subject of endless local fascination. After Nixon announced his resignation, crowds began to gather outside the Ford’s Alexandria home. The Police Department closed traffic to traffic as people waited for a glimpse of history, and an improvised stand outside the house had nearly 20 microphones attached to it. One headline from Aug. 8, 1974 proclaimed “Vice President’s Street Quiet Today.”
“As reports began to spread shortly after noon yesterday that President Nixon had decided to resign his office, Crown View Drive, on which Vice President Gerald R. Ford and his family reside, came alive with news media personnel, neighbors and curious passers-by,” the Alexandria Gazette reported on its front page that afternoon. “Neighbors joined the professionals in the picture taking experience as Ford entered, then resumed the friendly vigil waiting for something to happen. It didn’t.”
Louise Abbruzzese, who lived across the street on Crown View Drive, opened her home to reporters who spent 10 to 12 hours waiting for the soon-to-be-president to arrive. According to one Gazette story about the scene in the he let the gaggle of media types use her telephone, television and bathroom as the frenzy grew outside. When husband Peter arrived home from his job at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he placed pitchers of martinis on a plank table in the couple’s garage.
“Susan is the one I’ll miss most of all,” Louise Abbruzzese told a Gazette reporter, referring to the Ford’s 17-year-old daughter. “She was the first teenage I let baby-sit for my daughter.”
<B>FORD’S LOCAL</B> prominence had been a source of pride for years in Alexandria, and former Mayor Marshall Beverly told a Gazette reporter that Ford was “Alexandria’s first contribution directly to America’s presidency since George Washington.” It was a sentiment shared by many.
“Jerry Ford is just what we need in America at this time,” said Rep. Stan Parris (R-8) shortly after Ford was sworn in. “A good-sized dose of old fashioned integrity — that’s what he’ll give the country.”
The next Sunday, the Fords attended a service at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill and heard a sermon on the need to “pick up the broken pieces” of Nixon’s presidency. The Rev. William Dols Jr., rector of the church, decided to cut short his vacation when he learned that Ford would be in attendance that morning.
“The question at this hour before all of us is where we will go now,” Dols said during the service, according to a report in the Gazette. “The greatest danger of this hour, I believe, is the temptation of the rending and casting away that allows us to make Richard Nixon the scapegoat for us all, to believe that by sending him into the wilderness that he will bear the guilt of us all and that we will be free from blemish.”
<B>FORD’S DEATH ON</B> Dec. 26 brought all these memories back to life for many Alexandrians — a dark time that was brightened by Ford’s simplicity and unassuming nature. As the body of the former president was on its way to the Capitol to lie in state, the motorcade traveled north on Washington Street as a crowd of hundreds lined the street to bid farewell.
“The city of Alexandria is honored that President Ford’s motorcade will carry his remains through Alexandria en route to the United States Capitol,” said Mayor Bill Euille in a prepared statement. “In the near future, I will announce a process to recommend ways in which the city of Alexandria can permanently memorialize President Gerald R. Ford and his rich history as a resident of our city.”
White holiday lights reflected from the darkly tinted windows of the presidential hearse as the motorcade traversed the tree-line thoroughfare. Some applauded, others placed their hands over their hearts. Many gave a military salute to the former commander-in-chief.
“Ford’s presidency represented a time when we had civility in government,” said Gen. Bill Jacobs, an Alexandria resident who walked to Washington Street from his Old Town home. “He was such a family man.
Jacobs and his wife, Martha, said that Ford’s pardon of Nixon turned out to be the right thing for the country. Although it created a firestorm of controversy , the Jacobses said it spared the country further indignation.
“We were newlyweds at the time, and I had mixed feelings about it,” recalled Martha Jacobs. “In hindsight, I think it was the right decision.”
<B>AFTER THE MOTORCADE</B> passed, the crowd shared a moment of silence before returning to their Saturday evening. Leslie Strickland wiped the tears from her eyes as she explained her reverence for the former president.
“I love the Fords,” she said, staring at the road where the motorcade had passed. “He was such a great president.”
Strickland said that she shared a moment with the family as they passed through their old adopted hometown.
“I was particularly moved to see Mrs. Ford wave to the crowd,” said Strickland as more tears welled in her eyes. “It must have been very emotional for her to see the turnout here.”