Presidential Mothers: Gerald Ford’s mother confident and efficient

Published 1:54 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

The story of the mother of Gerald Ford Jr. is a real cloak and dagger story.  The dagger being a kitchen butcher knife.

Dorothy Ayers Gardner was born on Feb. 27, 1892, in Harvard, Ill. Her parents were Levi Addison Gardner and Adele Ayers Gardner. Dorothy’s family was one of the prominent families of Harvard. Her father had been the Mayor of Harvard and owned the finest furniture store in the town. Dorothy’s mother’s family was one of the early New England families that moved west as the country moved west and was one of the founders of Harvard, Ill.

After growing up in pleasant circumstances, Dorothy enrolled in a prestigious small college in Knoxville, Ill. Dorothy met Marietta King, and the two became good friends.  Marietta introduced Dorothy to her brother, Leslie, who was tall, handsome and already 30. Dorothy, who was 19, was a popular girl with a great smile and unbelievable amount of energy.  Even with the differences in ages, Dorothy and Leslie fell in love. Leslie went to Dorothy’s father and ask for his daughter’s hand as was the custom of those who did things the proper way. Leslie explained to Dorothy’s father how well-off he was. The fact that Leslie’s father was known to be quite wealthy, probably caused Mr. Gardner to believe everything that Leslie said. The idea of the college degree gave way to marriage certificate. Dorothy and Leslie were married on Sept. 7, 1812.  They went on an extended honeymoon through the Rockies to the Pacific Northwest and down the California Coast before they returned to Omaha.  The honeymoon was paid for by Leslie’s father.

The truth was that Leslie was an alcoholic and was deeply in debt.

Leslie abused Dorothy while they were on their honeymoon. He hit her and abused her verbally. Dorothy was so shocked she didn’t know how to react. The newlyweds moved into his parents’ home.  After more abuse, Dorothy returned to her parents’ home.

Of course, Leslie came, apologized, and promised that there would be no more abuse.

Dorothy agreed to try again. While Dorothy and Leslie were living at his parents’ home, a baby was born to the young couple. The date was July 14, 1913.  The birth of the baby, who was named Leslie King Jr., did not stop the abuse.  Leslie threatened mother and baby with a butcher knife.

A young woman was seen fleeing from the King mansion in the middle of the night with a bundle in her arms. That woman was Dorothy King, who was doing what she knew she had to do to protect her baby. She called a taxi and told to the driver to take her across the Missouri River to her parents’ home in the state of Iowa.

Gerald Ford did not know the whole story until he was grown and according to Bonnie Angelo’s book, “First Mother, The Women Who Shaped the Presidents,” Gerald said: “My mother was a very strong person, from girlhood.  The thing she did—to leave Omaha with me, not even a month old, in her arms—she literally escaped. It’s hard to comprehend. That was a remarkable action for a mother.”

Dorothy was able to get a divorce by telling the tragic story of her marriage. The King mansion where President Ford was born in Omaha burned a few years ago.  All that there is left is a marker.  There is a small Ford exhibit nearby which is open to the public.)

Dorothy’s family provided a good home for her and her son.  They lavished her son with attention. At last, all was well for Dorothy and her son.

Dorothy met a tall, good-looking paint salesman at a church social.  The man’s name was Gerald Ford. Gerald’s background was different from Dorothy’s. His father was killed, and Gerald had to quit school after eighth grade to help support his family. Dorothy and Gerald got better acquainted, and she realized that here was a man she could trust.

On Feb/ 1, 1916, Dorothy and Gerald Ford were married at Grace Episcopal Church where they had first met. The little boy, Leslie King Jr., became Gerald Ford Jr.

Again, quoting from Angelo’s book, Gerald Ford said: “He was the father I grew up to believe was my father, the father I loved and learned from and respected.  He was my dad.”

A couple of times Leslie King, Gerald’s birth father, showed up and tried to get him to come live with him to no avail. Gerald had a good mother and father, and he was not about to be led away by an unknown man.  The relationship between Gerald and his step-father showed that love, not blood, is what mattered.

Dorothy Ford was a good mother who was completely devoted to the task of mothering Gerald and the three other sons that were born to her and her second husband, Gerald Ford.

Dorothy was strict, but a loving mother so her household functioned well. Dorothy was involved in community and church activities. She did not spend all of her time caring for family and her home. The family had financial ups and downs. Gerald had been able to begin his own business which was flourishing when the crash of 1929 occurred. Gerald’s business floundered, and, actually, the Fords lost the nice house that they had been able to buy. They moved into a less fashionable neighborhood and they made friends there.  In other words, Gerald Ford’s mother and father could adjust, and they did when difficulties arose.

Gerald had a choice of high schools which he could attend. Mrs. Ford urged Gerald to go to South High where he could learn to deal with all kinds of people. He did just that and excelled at South. When Gerald entered the political field, he felt that the education that he got at South in dealing with people of all races and people from all economic levels was very helpful to him.

Gerald Ford then went to the University of Michigan where he had to pay his own way. Gerald had been given responsibilities since he was a boy so he simply accepted the fact that he had to work and put himself though school. Gerald did well at the University and became quite a football star.

After graduating from the university, he was offered an opportunity to play professional football.  He turned down the offer because he wanted to go to law school. Gerald always seemed to have his priorities right probably as the result of the guidance of the mother who had her priorities right.  After graduating from the University of Michigan, Gerald got a job as an assistant coach at Yale University. While he served as a coach, he also took courses in the law school and was thereby able to graduate from the Yale Law School.

After graduating from law school, Gerald joined the U.S. Navy because by that time, the United States was involved in World War II. The ship to which Lt. Ford was assigned was involved in heavy fighting in the Pacific, but it was a typhoon that almost claimed Gerald’s life.

He survived, but just barely.  When the war ended, Gerald went back to the home of his parents.

Once he was back in Grand Rapids, Gerald, who was called Jerry by many, met Betty Bloomer, a dancer who had been married and divorced and who had come back home to Grand Rapids.  From the first time they met, Gerald’s mother and Betty liked each other.  That was the something that lasted the rest of their lives. Betty said: “Jerry’s stepfather stood straight as an arrow and I had the impression that he lived his life that way. His mother was a handsome woman with tremendous charisma … she seemed such a strong woman, confident and positive, just the right person to raise these four Ford boys. I thought what a wonderful family Gerald has.

The Betty/Jerry friendship turned into something serious. They were married in 1948. By that time, Ford was into politics and was running as a Representative from his Michigan District for the U.S. House of Representatives.  He won, so the Fords moved to Washington. They started a family, and Dorothy Ford loved to visit them in their Washington home.  The children loved having grandma visit. She particularly doted on the Ford daughter because she never had a little girl, and that child had the best-dressed doll clothes in Washington. Dorothy also loved to go to the Capitol and see her son at work on the House Floor—she had to feel that as a mother she had been successful.

President Nixon chose Ford to serve as  vice president after Agnew resigned.  Jerry wasn’t sure he wanted that job, but he took it and ended up President.  Dorothy Ford did not live to see her son become the  vice president or the38th President, which is a shame because she would have loved visiting the White House and seeing her son at work.