Hometown honors President Gerald Ford at 100 - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 9:49 am
July 14, 1913
Hometown honors President Gerald Ford at 100

The centennial of President Gerald R. Ford's birth will be marked with no pomp and circumstance at his Omaha birthsite, but America's 38th president won't be forgotten.

Flag-waving and solemn oaths will break out the next day, when 50 immigrants from 25 countries take the oath of U.S. citizenship at a naturalization ceremony next door.

Ford was born July 14, 1913, at 3202 Woolworth Ave., in the home of his paternal grandparents. It was the hottest day of the year in Omaha at 101 degrees.

The 14-room mansion stood on the border of the Hanscom Park and Field Club neighborhoods. It had a ballroom, wraparound porch and architectural gingerbread. The three-story, frame dwelling evolved into an apartment building over the years. Fire destroyed it in 1971.

The site of the home at the northwest corner of 32nd Street and Woolworth Avenue is now the Gerald Ford Birthsite and Gardens. It is adjacent to the Nebraska State Historical Society's Gerald Ford Conservation Center. A few blocks east is Interstate 480, also known as the Gerald Ford Expressway.

Although a native Omahan, not until Ford left the White House did he develop an affection for his birthplace. The former president periodically visited Omaha for events celebrating the park built on his birthsite. He returned for speeches, to stump for Republicans and to visit cousins.

Ford told The World-Herald in 1995 that he had no real connections to Omaha for much of his life because of the bitterness between his mother and his biological father. He was raised in Michigan. Nebraska was in the past.

Ford centennial Events

The 100th anniversary of the only U.S. president born in Nebraska will be marked Sunday and Monday with two different events hosted by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

» Sunday: The Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center at 1326 S. 32nd St. will be open to the public free of charge from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The facility was built adjacent to Ford’s birthplace and houses laboratories where historic and artistic works are stabilized and preserved.

» Monday: Fifty new citizens of the United States from 25 different countries will take their naturalization oaths at 11 a.m. at the center.

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr.

His parents were Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy Ayer Gardner. King and Gardner were from prominent families. Her father owned a real estate business and furniture store in Harvard, Ill. His father, Charles Henry King, built a multimillion-dollar fortune developing railroads, lumberyards and other businesses. He started in Chadron, Neb., and expanded to other emerging Nebraska and Wyoming towns. Leslie King managed Omaha Wool and Storage Co. for his father.

Their Sept. 7, 1912, wedding was a social event in her hometown in Illinois, but it was a troubled marriage from the start.

Divorce documents filed 15 months after the wedding describe a rocky honeymoon during which King insulted and struck his new wife. The attacks continued after their arrival in Omaha, where they lived with King's parents.

Sixteen days after the couple's son was born, Ford's mother fled from Omaha with the child. By year's end, the Kings were divorced. She settled in Grand Rapids, Mich. In 1916, she married Gerald R. Ford, a paint store owner who adopted Leslie King Jr. and gave the infant his name.

King, the future president's father, left Nebraska and settled in Riverton, Wyo., to avoid a court order to pay $3,075 in alimony to his former wife and $25 a month in child support until Leslie Jr. reached age 21.

Not until after his election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan after World War II did Ford return to Omaha for the first time.

Ford's Omaha family members watched their cousin's political career with pride. Susette Bradford Sutton wrote to her cousin often, said her son, William H. Sutton Jr. of Omaha.

“My mother was a staunch Republican and was always very proud of Gerald Ford,'' he said. “Then, lo and behold, because of President Nixon's resignation, her long-lost relative goes from vice president to president of the United States.''

Susette Sutton, who died in 1994, campaigned for Ford in Nebraska and was a delegate to the Republican presidential convention that nominated Ford in 1976. William Sutton was chairman of the Young Republicans at Hastings College during Ford's unsuccessful campaign.

“The first time I voted in a presidential election was for one of my mother's cousins,'' he said. “That was pretty cool.''

Sutton worked for the Omaha Parks Department during his college summers. One of his chores was to tend the grounds at the Ford Birthsite and Gardens.

Teena Boehling of Springfield, Neb., a daughter of Susette Sutton, said there were several opportunities for family members to shake Ford's hand during his Omaha visits.

Dana C. “Woody'' Bradford III of Omaha said his family understood and appreciated that the only father Ford knew was his adoptive dad.

“Because of the history, we didn't have a lot of contact with President Ford,'' Bradford said. “He left Omaha under unfortunate circumstances.''

Bradford's father, the late Dana C. Bradford Jr., was a first cousin of Ford's. Dana Bradford Jr.'s grandmother, Savilla King Bradford Pettis, was Ford's aunt.

Bradford said Ford's paternal grandfather, Charles Henry King, saw to it that his former daughter-in-law and grandson were “fairly secure.'' King made his son's child support payments to Ford's mother until his death in 1930.

Bradford said he wished there had been more opportunities for Ford's Omaha family to know him over the years.

“I think the country will remember him as a very principled man who took those principles to the White House,'' Bradford said.

When Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 and Ford assumed the presidency, the site where the new president was born was a weedy, vacant lot.

The late Jim Paxson, who was chairman of the board of Standard Chemical Co. in Omaha and lived nearby, bought the lot and donated it to the city. He envisioned a historical marker on the site.

“We never had a native Nebraskan as president before,” Paxson said in 1976. “I didn't do it for Gerald Ford personally. I did it for the office of the presidency.”

University of Nebraska architecture student Gary Dubas — now a senior health care architect with TSP Inc. in Omaha — won a competition to design part of the park. His concept called for recreating the footprint of Ford's birthplace into the forms and surfaces of the landscaped garden. Schlott Farrington and Associates of Omaha designed the gardens and landscaping.

The park is a popular place for weddings, with its rose garden, gazebo and nearby reception area at the Ford Conservation Center.

Paxson ultimately donated $4 million toward development of the site, including more than $2 million for construction of the conservation center. The facility has one of the nation's top labs for preserving and restoring books, documents, textiles and other objects. It also features an exhibit about Ford.

Omaha acquaintances say Ford was overwhelmed that people he barely knew in Omaha turned the corner lot where he was born into a presidential park.

Ford died in 2006 at age 93.

Sutton said that although he and others may be considered the dark side of the family, they are proud to carry on a physical resemblance to the former president. They treasure letters from the White House. They have preserved the King family Bible that predates Ford's birth.

Ford's rough start in life and a political career that led to the White House make Monday's naturalization ceremony near his birthsite especially appropriate, said Tim Counts, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Bloomington, Minn.

“These new applicants study for a series of questions about U.S. history, government and civics,'' Counts said. “Taking the oath of citizenship at President Ford's birthsite is symbolic for new citizens of the possibilities in America.''

Contact the writer: David Hendee

david.hendee@owh.com    |   402-444-1127

David covers a variety of news across Nebraska, particularly natural resources and rural issues and the State Game and Parks Commission.

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