Rancho Mirage was already a billionaires’ playground, but Ford’s center made it a household name as it provided help to luminaries ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Lindsay Lohan.
Tributes poured in Saturday from A-listers and average residents alike in the desert golf community where Ford settled with her husband, former President Gerald Ford, after he left office more than three decades ago.
She died of natural causes at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage on Friday at age 93, family attorney and spokesman Greg Willard said.
She will be memorialized Tuesday in California’s Coachella Valley, which includes Rancho Mirage, before her casket travels by motorcade and military transport for a private burial Thursday alongside her husband in Grand Rapids, Mich., at the Gerald R. Ford Museum.
In Rancho Mirage, residents were saddened by her death even as they praised her devotion to removing the stigma from addiction. The Betty Ford Center treated more than 90,000 people since its beginnings in 1982 and although it was most famous for a string of celebrity patients, it kept its rates relatively affordable and provided a model for effective addiction treatment.
She revealed her own longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol 15 months after leaving the White House, and regularly welcomed new groups of patients to rehab with a speech that started, “Hello, my name’s Betty Ford, and I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.”
Carol Pruter, 67, said she was proud that Betty Ford chose to set up her rehab center in Rancho Mirage and admired Ford for making a point of reaching out to average people too, Pruter said.
“She let people know that people who aren’t well-known can get addictions too. It’s not something for a certain part of society, it’s not something to hide,” Pruter said as she stopped by a local coffee shop in Saturday’s 104-degree desert heat.
Pruter’s family attends St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in nearby Palm Desert, where the Fords also worshipped. The church will host a tribute service Tuesday to Mrs. Ford for friends and family, and a public visitation Tuesday evening.
Ford chose her close friend and fellow former first lady Rosalynn Carter to eulogize her in California, along with journalist Cokie Roberts and a University of Michigan dean, Jeffrey MacKie-Mason.
Willard, who has served the family since 1975, recalled when the outspoken bosom buddies Ford and Carter went to Capitol Hill to lobby for mental health legislation.
“Several senators and congressmen have since observed that they have not seen a political force of nature as they did that day when they saw those women arm-in-arm in the halls of Congress,” Willard said Saturday.
Other residents of the desert town reminisced about the celebrity cache that the Betty Ford Center brought to Rancho Mirage and the other desert cities in the Coachella Valley – but without the frenzy that so often accompanies the comings and goings of today’s troubled stars.
“It’s probably shallow to say, but I think it’s really cool she was able to get celebrities here,” said Pat Kellogg, who has lived in the area for 22 years.
Florist John Ballow for years has catered to Rancho Mirage’s wealthy and famous, but there were few with whom he developed as close a relationship as the woman he reverentially calls “Mrs. Ford.”
“I took this almost as bad as a member of my family dying – the world does not make Mrs. Fords anymore,” said Ballow.
The city’s annual Betty Ford Pro-Am Golf Tournament draws on the lush fairways to raise money for people who cannot afford addiction treatment.
The rest of the world, however, knew the rehab center’s hometown primarily for its ties to Hollywood’s elite, so much so that it became the punch line in discussions of celebrity overindulgence.
In 1996, Kelsey Grammer described to Jay Leno how his treatment at Betty Ford helped restore his joy of living. The comedian also quipped about the center’s stature and its famous patients.
“When I was on my way to the Betty Ford Center, I turned to one of my friends and said, ‘You know, I’ve finally made it. I’m going to the Betty Ford Center,’” he said.
Grammer, however, also credited the center with saving his life as did many of the celebrities who honored Ford on Friday as news of her death spread, from Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin to One Day at a Time actress Mackenzie Phillips to Ali McGraw, who was treated at the center in 1986.
“She changed so many of our lives with her courage and intelligence, her honesty and humility, and her deep grace,” McGraw said. “Her vision impacted my own life as few people have.”
But Ford herself would have rejected the praise as she did in life, preferring instead to turn the attention back to the person who was struggling with the demons of addiction.
“People who get well often say, ‘You saved my life,’ and ‘You’ve turned my life around,’” Ford once said. “They don’t realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves, and that’s all.”
After the Tuesday service in California, Ford’s casket will travel Wednesday to Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, where she grew up, and where she met her husband of 58 years.
As in California, there will be another tribute service for family and friends at Grace Episcopal Church before a public visitation is held. Lynne Cheney, the wife of former vice president Dick Cheney, and history scholar Richard Norton Smith will give eulogies at the Michigan service.
McCartney reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press Writers Gillian Flaccus and Chris Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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