When Gerald Ford took office as president in August 1974, the nation was reeling from the Watergate scandal, a faltering economy and a decade of bitter internal divisions over the war in Vietnam. Over the next two years, Ford attempted to heal these wounds and guide the nation back onto a more secure path, but ultimately failed to win reelection to a second term. Now, as the 100th anniversary of Ford’s birth approaches on July 14, we take a look at some things you may not know about the nation’s 38th president and his long career in the public eye.
1. His birth name wasn’t Gerald R. Ford.
Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents, Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy Ayer King, separated soon after his birth and after they divorced his mother moved with her son to Grand Rapids, Michigan. There she met and married a local paint salesman, Gerald Rudolph Ford, and they began calling her son Gerald R. Ford Jr. (though his name wouldn’t be legally changed until 1935). The younger Ford had a close relationship with his stepfather, despite learning at 13 that he was not his biological father. When he was 17, Ford had a chance meeting with Leslie L. King in a Grand Rapids restaurant; he later spoke bitterly of the encounter (King had neglected to pay his court-ordered child support) and said he had never truly forgiven his father.
2. Ford could have played in the NFL.
A hardworking student-athlete in high school, Ford won a scholarship to the University of Michigan, which he attended from 1931 to 1935. The university’s football team, the Wolverines, won national championships in 1932 and 1933, and in 1934 (his senior year) Ford was named the team’s most valuable player. Upon graduation, Ford received offers from two professional football teams, the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, but he turned them down to take a position as head boxing coach and assistant football coach at Yale University, where he hoped to study law. In New Haven, he coached future U.S. senators Robert Taft Jr. and William Proxmire. At first, the Yale Law School administration refused to allow Ford to take classes full time due to his coaching duties, but by 1938 he had managed to convince them, and ended up graduating in the top-third of his class. During his tenure in Congress, political opponents sometimes referred to Ford’s athletic past, including a memorable quote from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson that Rep. Ford had “played too much football without a helmet.”
3. He nearly lost his life when a typhoon hit his Navy aircraft carrier during World War II.
By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Ford had moved back to Grand Rapids and opened a law practice. Soon after the bombing, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an ensign and was assigned as a physical training officer of recruits in North Carolina. After repeated requests to be sent to a combat unit, Ford was sent to the Pacific aboard the U.S.S. Monterey, a light aircraft carrier. He would earn 10 battle stars by war’s end, for participation in engagements at Okinawa, Wake, Taiwan, the Philippines and the Gilbert Islands, among others. On December 18, 1944, the Monterey was one of many Navy ships hit by Typhoon Cobra, a massive storm that would sink three destroyers, damage numerous other ships and injure hundreds of sailors. According to Ford’s obituary in the New York Times, the future president came within inches of losing his life when he was almost swept off the topside deck during the typhoon.
4. As a Republican congressman from Michigan, he was undefeated through 13 elections.
Ford’s World War II service inspired him to begin a career in public life, and in 1948 he successfully challenged the Republican incumbent in the primary and easily won his first term in Congress, representing Michigan’s Fifth District. During the campaign, Ford married Elizabeth Bloomer Warren, a former model, fashion coordinator and dancer. The couple spent their two-day honeymoon attending Republican Party rallies. Ford would go on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from January 1949 to December 1973, winning reelection 12 times, always with more than 60 percent of the vote. Describing himself as “a moderate in domestic affairs, an internationalist in foreign affairs, and a conservative in fiscal policy,” he rose through the ranks to become the leader of the Republican minority in Congress, though he never attained his ambition to become speaker of the House.
5. While serving on the Warren Commission, Ford secretly gave information about the committee’s investigation into JFK’s assassination to the FBI.
In late 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ford to the Warren Commission investigating John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Ford later co-authored a book about the commission’s findings, titled “Portrait of the Assassin” (1965). Years later, documents came to light revealing that Ford opened a private channel of communication with the FBI, then run by J. Edgar Hoover, about the commission’s independent investigation. In 2008, two years after Ford’s death, the Washington Post reported that among the 500 pages of the FBI’s previously confidential file on the former president were memos revealing that Ford approached the FBI to offer them confidential information about the proceedings of the commission, including the fact that several members of the commission doubted the FBI’s single-gunman theory (in which Ford was a strong believer).
6. He wasn’t actually elected to the office of vice president or president.
When Vice President Spiro Agnew, resigned late in 1973 after pleading no contest to income tax evasion, Nixon was empowered under the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to appoint a replacement. He chose Ford, who after a thorough background check by the FBI and confirmation by the Senate and House would become the first vice president chosen under the amendment’s provisions. Sworn in on December 6, 1973, Ford would serve only nine months as vice president before the tangled Watergate scandal led Nixon to become the first president in history to resign. At the time Ford took the nation’s highest office, the U.S. economy was in disarray, a worldwide energy shortage was growing worse and the nation had endured a long-running scandal tainting the highest ranks of its leadership. In a memorable inaugural address, Ford declared that “Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works,” and urged Americans to join together to bind the wounds of Watergate.
7. He stood by his decision to pardon Nixon–even though it might have cost him reelection.
Ford occupied the Oval Office for only 896 days. His decision to grant a full and absolute pardon to Richard Nixon stunned and angered much of the nation in September 1974 and inspired suspicions that he had cut a back-room deal with his predecessor. Yet Ford always believed the decision was right, even though it likely contributed to a generally unfavorable assessment of his presidency and helped cost him reelection in 1976, when he was defeated by Jimmy Carter. According to his 1979 autobiography and conversations in retirement, he believed that “all of the healing process that I thought was so essential would have been much more difficult to achieve” had Nixon been forced to face trial during his presidency.
8. Ford was the target of two assassination attempts–both in 1975, both in California and both by women.
On the campaign trail in 1975, Ford weathered two different assassination attempts on separate trips to California. In Sacramento on September 5, the Secret Service apprehended Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (a former follower of Charles Manson) after seeing her with a pistol at a crowded event in Capitol Park. Barely two weeks later, radical activist Sara Jane Moore fired a gun at the president in San Francisco, but a fellow bystander (a former Marine) knocked the weapon out of her hand. Both women were sentenced to life in prison; Moore was released on parole in 2009 while Fromme remains in jail.
9. His wife was one of the most popular first ladies in U.S. history.
Less than two months after her husband became president, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy. Always outspoken and candid, she used her influential position as first lady to speak out about the disease and its treatment, earning the enduring respect and affection of the American public. She also lobbied extensively for women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, and was named TIME magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 1975. Two years after leaving the White House, after a family intervention, Betty Ford entered rehabilitation for alcohol abuse and dependency on pain medication. She was characteristically honest and open about her experiences with the public, and her efforts led to the opening of the Betty Ford Center, a treatment facility for women located on the campus of the Eisenhower Medical Center in California.