From a senior prom in the White House’s East Room to a commencement speech given by President Gerald Ford himself, Susan Ford’s high school years at Holton-Arms marked a turbulent time in American history and made for a memorable high school experience for Susan and her classmates of 1975. While the United States mourned the loss of a president with the state funeral for President Ford last week, the Holton-Arms School remembered and commemorated a Holton parent and his family.
Susan Ford started at Holton in the 9th grade while her father was the House Minority Leader. Until Ford became President in 1974, Susan lived in the Holton dormitories, commuting home on the weekends.
“President Gerald Ford called me one day and said that [Susan] needed to go back [to the White House] because the Secret Service felt that it was not safe for her to [live at Holton] any longer. They were wonderful men devoted to Susan’s care,” said Mary Jane Puckett, who was the school’s Dean of Students at the time.
<b>WHEN SUSAN LEFT</b> Holton housing, two of her best friends came to live in the White House for a month-and-a-half. Described as a “tenacious friend” by her 12th-grade English teacher Nick Gilbert, Susan lived in the public eye throughout her years at Holton. Yet, aware of her position, she was always courteous, her classmates and teachers said.
“We got a few perks, without the pressure. As a personal favor, Susan set up a tour of the Capitol for a government class. During her junior year, she gave a tour of the White House, including the personal quarters, to an American history class,” said Robert R. Tupper, who taught Susan’s 9th-grade algebra class.
“Through the late seventies and early eighties Holton hosted a series called “Potential of Women Day,” where we devoted an entire day to professional women coming to talk and hold little seminars. Mrs. Ford came and opened one of the seminars. It was something a mother would do, but the point was that she did and she was beautiful and gracious. She was very much her daughter’s mother as well as the First Lady,” said Sally Alexander, who was Holton’s college counselor as well as Susan’s advisor at the time.
Nevertheless, Holton respected the Ford family’s request that Susan be treated as just another student, without special privileges.
“I remember very distinctly how much she appreciated not being treated any differently when Ford became President; she just wanted to be Susan Ford at Holton,” said Alexander.
<b>IN HER SENIOR YEAR</b>, Susan came to Puckett to ask if the senior class could hold their prom at the White House. Puckett and the senior class readily agreed, adhering to Ford’s “typical Midwestern fashion [request] that the dance be at no expense to the government,” according to Puckett.
“Prom was just fun because you could ask anyone you wanted and they’d go with you,” said former classmate Mary Gagarin.
“I remember we had to give our dates’ names and social security numbers in advance, which I imagine must have stressed out more than one of us!” echoed another former classmate Cristina Talavera in a recent e-mail.
Susan’s Secret Service agents added another dimension to her time at the all-girls school. They modeled for art classes and spoke at assemblies. On Halloween, three Secret Service agents and Susan dressed up as the three bears and Goldilocks. Still, they were there to protect Susan. A Secret Service agent once threw himself between Susan and English teacher Nick Gilbert, not recognizing Gilbert with his new haircut.
“He looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s you” and was gone. Back in those days, I still thought I was a hippie, and I got two haircuts a year. I’ve been in Viet-Nam and in the labor camps in California, and that’s probably the closest I’ve come to death,” said Gilbert in a recent e-mail.
<b>WHEN SUSAN GRADUATED</b>, Ford delivered the commencement speech. The tight security canvassing the campus left a deep impression on those attending the 1975 ceremony. FBI agents, a SWAT team, and Secret Service, all armed, hid in the trees and behind bushes of Holton’s amphitheater.
“I was given a special button to wear. I remember walking in to sit down next to Mrs. Ford, and a Secret Service agent stood up to stop me from sitting next to her. Then, he saw my pin and let me sit. As long as I wore that button I could go anywhere on campus,” said Puckett.
During the address, Ford voiced his support for the Equal Rights Amendment, stating that “before America completes its Bicentennial celebration, I hope the Equal Rights Amendment will be part of the United States Constitution. For ERA also stands for a new era for women in America, an era of equal rights and responsibilities and rewards. The rough but rewarding task of your generation, of each of you, will be to see that recent progress in equal opportunity becomes regular practice.”
But Ford's speech did not dwell on the political for long. His speech was that of a proud parent, rather than that of a U.S. president, according to Alexander. He evoked laughter from the class and graduation attendees saying "that my daughter Susan gave me some very specific advice on this speech. She asked me not to talk too long, not to tell any jokes, not to talk about her, and not to talk about the way things were when I was your age."