Jerry and Betty Ford focused the world on Vail
Editor’s note: This is a look back at Jerry and Betty Ford’s influence on Vail. Jerry has been gone for 10 years. Some of this material was pulled from stories we’ve been writing about Jerry and Betty Ford for decades.
VAIL — Jerry Ford hit his golf drives 250 yards, as straight as his character and as true as his word.
He has been gone 10 years today. Lucky for us, the love Jerry and Betty shared with Vail lives on.
Here’s something you might not know, but will want to.
Jerry and Betty Ford started coming to Vail in the 1960s when he was a Michigan congressman.
The Fords connected to Vail through Jerry’s boyhood friend Ted Kindel, a former owner of The Christiania Lodge who was from Grand Rapids, Mich., the town in which Ford was born and raised.
Kindel was Vail’s first mayor, and his dad was Ford’s Boy Scout leader when Ford earned his Eagle Scout rank.
Lawmakers didn’t make all that much money in those days and they wanted their own place in Vail.
So, Jerry and Betty, parents to a houseful of delightful children, raised the money for the down payment on a Vail condo by borrowing against the cash value of their children’s life insurance policies.
They bought an end unit in The Lodge at Vail facing Vail Mountain. They stayed there until Jerry ascended to the presidency and the Secret Service said, “Not a chance are you living there!” or words to that effect.
Vail Associates owner Dick Bass offered Ford the use of his Mill Creek home when Ford was in town. The Secret Service agreed, saying it was much more secure.
“That’s the way it is”
Vail’s history is rich and colorful; Jerry and Betty Ford’s spotlight focused the world’s attention on it.
If you need to promote your fledgling ski area, there’s no better way than for the White House press corps to do it for you.
That’s what Vail did.
Longtime locals credit Former President Gerald Ford with first bringing Vail to international prominence. During his presidency, he was such a regular on the slopes that the White House press corps began calling Vail “The Western White House.”
That moniker was beamed into living rooms all over the country, along with shots of Ford and Chief of Staff Dick Cheney skiing. The snow was great, the skies were blue, and everyone was having a great time.
In the background, Walter Cronkite, “The Most Trusted Man in America,” told America, “That’s the way it is.”
“Prior to that, when I went to New York to do the buying for Pepi’s Sports, I had to explain that Vail was a new resort between Denver and Aspen,” said Sheika Gramshammer. “After he became president, people would say, “Oh! You live where the president does!”
Ford brought a constant stream of international political and government officials to town. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was around. It wasn’t unusual to find a quorum of Ford’s Cabinet around a table in a local restaurant.
“If you really stand back and look at Vail and its maturing, he was the one individual who had more impact than anyone else,” said Rod Slifer, two-time Vail mayor and the Slifer in Slifer, Smith and Frampton. “While he was president he brought focus here.”
Pepi Gramshammer was Ford’s ski coach while he was in the White House, said Sheika. “He always liked to ski close to the trees where the good snow was. Pepi used to get mad at him and yell at him to stay away from those trees, but he would just grin and wave.”
After bolting from the Beltway, the Fords split their time between Vail and southern California.
“After he settled here he became a great ambassador for the Vail Valley,” said Slifer.
Ford also set about the business of being an international statesman. He was already a great guy.
“He was such a delightful human being,” said Sheika. “We could use some more of those to make the world go around a little better.”
Ford launched the annual World Forum, a gathering of international leaders from government and industry, and the annual Jerry Ford Invitational, a golf tournament that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities.
“What I remember about President Ford is that he was a man who loved to think big, then deliver on those thoughts,” said Harry Frampton. “He and Betty truly cared about this community, and they participated in so many of our events and activities. He brought credibility, and wisdom, to our town and contributed a tremendous amount to everything that we undertook to accomplish in those years. His contribution, in particular, to the Vail Valley Foundation was a tremendous help to us. He never missed a VVF board meeting, and he was always engaged and excited about the new ideas that we were bringing to the table.”
Above all else, Jerry Ford was a family man, and the Jerry Ford Invitational golf tournament was a big family reunion.
Bob Barrett, Ford’s military aide during Ford’s White House years, was invited to remain with Ford’s staff afterward. He put together the first Jerry Ford Invitational golf tournament in 1977, along with Rod Slifer, John Purcell and John Donovan. Kathy Meyer ran the tournament and held the keys to that kingdom.
The Jerry Ford Invitational was a study in networking. Ford met Jack Nicklaus and other PGA luminaries playing member-guest events on the PGA tour.
Ford knew Bob Hope already, which led to Telly Savalas, Dinah Shore, Clint Eastwood and the Statler Brothers. Athletes like Yogi Berra and Julius “Dr. J” Erving weren’t much of a stretch. Of course, political pals like Tip O’Neill just showed up because they liked Ford.
“By the sixth and seventh year, it had reached a happy saturation point,” Barrett said. “They couldn’t get any more people in it, no more celebrities and performers.”
Ben Krueger was superintendent of the Vail golf course from 1967 through 1991, when most of the 25 Jerry Ford Invitationals were being played.
“I did get to play golf with him, so we did get to know him well,” Krueger said. “He was very easy going, comfortable to be with.”
“When he was president, the Secret Service was always around, and that was something,” Krueger said. “They’d stand out in the woods and check the place out. It was quite a safe-guarded situation when he was president.”
In the spirit of the event, Nicklaus won the first JFI and returned the $10,000 first prize to be given to local charities.
How about the time
One time, at a 40th birthday party at Purcell’s, the guest of honor received a moped, and President Ford agreed to take a ride, much to the chagrin of the Secret Service.
Then there was the time the Garton boys and Packy Walker got their hands on an armored Cadillac limousine. When Ford used to arrive at the course one or two agents would pop out of the car and walk over to the first tee. Shortly afterward, Packy and the Gartons came rolling up.
“They had flags and the whole diplomatic schmear,” Barrett said. “They got guys to pose as Secret Service agents wearing sunglasses. Packy jumped out and walked over to the first tee and joined them. He just stood there laughing.
The Ford Cup
The Ford Cup was the winter version of the golf tournament. The Ford Cup beget the American Ski Classic, which beget Vail’s two World Alpine Ski Championships — 1989 and 1999. By the time 2015 rolled around, Vail/Beaver Creek and the Vail Valley Foundation won the bid because they were great at it.
Anyway, about the JFI, Tom Place was the publicity director for the PGA. He started coming to Vail in 1965 and convinced the PGA pros to come play at the JFI.
People remember he succeeded Nixon, pardoned Nixon and that Saigon fell shortly after he took office. They don’t remember that in spite of doing what he felt was right but unpopular, he still lost to Jimmy Carter by only 1.2 percent in the popular vote.
“You might have voted for someone else,” Barrett said. “But not because you didn’t like him.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.