President Ford: ‘He was Vail’s very best friend’ |

President Ford: ‘He was Vail’s very best friend’

Ian Cropp, J.K. Perry, Matt Terrell, Randy Wyrick and Matt Zalaznick
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colo. ” Gerald Ford was Vail’s most famous resident, but he sure didn’t act like it.

Ford, who died at 93 Tuesday night, was remembered by locals who knew him as a down-to-earth neighbor, skier, golfer and supporter of the arts who did as much as anyone to make Vail a world-famous ski resort.

“He never acted like he was important. That was just great,” said Frank Doll, an Eagle County native who has spent most of his life in the valley. “He was good to people. He was just good.”

“It wasn’t uncommon to see him and Mrs. Ford shopping in City Market,” said longtime resident John Dakin. “They were anything but a random celebrity sighting in this valley.”

“President Ford was very easy to like no matter who you were or what your politics were,” Dakin added.

Local real estate developer and Vail Mayor Rod Slifer met Ford, then a congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich., in the 1960s when Vail’s first mayor, Ted Kendall, brought the middle-aged politician to town.

“He’d been in Congress all his life, and they didn’t make much money in those days. But he loved Vail so much and he was determined to buy some sort of property in Vail,” Slifer said. “He finally bought an apartment in the Lodge at Vail in that wing along Gore Creek, near Checkpoint Charlie. He didn’t have enough money for the down payment, so he borrowed against his children’s life insurance policies. He loved to tell that story years later.”

Ford kept coming to Vail when he was appointed vice president and president. Luminaries and tourists followed.

“He really made it his summer White House,” Slifer said.

“His name just attracted people,” Doll said. “If I can go live where the president of the U.S. lives, then I’m a big shot.”

Ford brought the limelight to Vail, lending his name to benefits, leading the Fourth of July parade, skiing with the Secret Service and starting a golf tournament than lasted 25 years.

“A lot of things put Vail on the map, but President Ford maybe put Vail on the map more than anyone or anything else,” Slifer said. “The Fords were very important to the success of Vail. He would volunteer for anything anywhere.”

Slifer added, “I always thought he had a bum rap as an athlete. He was an All-American football player at Michigan. He was a good skier, although his knees weren’t the greatest, and he loved golf.”

Longtime Vail resident and former Councilwoman Diana Donovan has forgotten when exactly she met Ford, but she remembers the president’s “guy next door” identity.

“He’s just a nice guy who happened to be president of the United States,” she said.

Ford’s death struck Vail resident Bill Hanlon deeply. The two started a friendship in the early 1970s. Hanlon visited the president in California, Michigan, Washington, D.C., and attended the dedications of both presidential libraries.

“A man of integrity and of honesty” was how Hanlon described Ford Tuesday night.

Chris Jouflas met the Ford family when they started coming to Vail in the late 1960s. Jouflas, who ranched sheep on much of what is now Vail Mountain, used to barbecue lambs for Ford’s birthday parties in Vail ” because Betty asked them to and the two families like each other.

“He was a world leader who attracted kings and other world leaders to the Vail Valley, and still had time for the shepherds,” Jouflas said. “He was the greatest asset the Vail Valley had.”

Dr. Tom Steinberg, Vail’s first doctor, came to town in 1965. He said Ford helped make Vail a family resort.

“Vail was a family place and continues to have that feel,” Steinberg said. “Vail was a family resort, as opposed to Aspen. He was from Michigan and had skied. His family sort of grew into Vail as Vail grew. We all respected that sort of regular visitor no matter who they were. If they wanted their privacy, they had their privacy. They felt a part of the community. Nobody bugged them.

“He was gracious and down to earth. He carried that sort of attitude into his dealings with world affairs,” Steinberg said.

But Ford wasn’t just a friendly neighbor. News footage of him skiing helped make Vail’s slopes known around the world. His golf tournament showed potential visitors that they were things to do in Vail during when there was no snow. Ford’s support of the arts helped make Vail more than just a recreation destination.

“When he was president, we were in the news constantly,” Slifer said. “He was a great supporter. In the heyday of the Ford Invitational and Nicklaus was on top, they all came and played because President Ford asked them.”

Ford’s contributions went beyond the facilities that bear his name.

“I look at all the things he did in the community and it makes it special not only when he was here, but it gives us a piece of pride,” said Ceil Folz, president of the Vail Valley Foundation, a charity for which Ford served on the board of directors. “It’s more than just Ford Park and Ford Amphitheater.”

“I think this valley is a much better place because of the Fords and what they brought to the valley,” Dakin added. “They were not just casual observers who were wondering what we could do for them. It was more what they could do for us.”

Ford’s wife, Betty, lent her name to Vail’s well-known alpine gardens, to which the Fords were regular visitors, said Marty Jones, an Edwards resident who helped found the attraction.

“He and Betty both played significant roles. His prominence, the people he brought to the valley, the things he sponsored, his hard work towards numerous events ” he was a pretty tireless worker,” Jones said. “The thing that sticks in my mind is just he was always down to earth, very in touch with the people around him and he had a real strong common-sense factor. He always seemed to have the right answer for what the situation was.”

“Everyone in the Vail Valley will say that Vail and the Vail Valley wouldn’t be what it is without Gerald Ford and Betty Ford,” said June Vanourek, a former president of the Alpine Gardens. “They were very generous to the gardens with their time, hosted many fundraisers for the gardens, had many people in their home.

“They are lovely, generous people,” she said.

Vanourek remembers Ford slowing down a bit during the past few years.

“I remember going to their home in Beaver Creek, and this was just a couple years ago, and we were going to ask Mrs. Ford if we could do a tribute to her, and she said, ‘Yes.’ They both greeted us at the door. He said, ‘You’ll have to excuse me, I have some work to do in my office.’ So he went back there. She winked at us. She said, ‘He’s going to take a nap.’ And I guess he needed those naps.”

Ford spent the summer of 2005 in the valley and remained an active board member of the Vail Valley Foundation, Folz said.

“He was in great shape and did a lot of things. He was very active,” Folz said.

One day, an aide called the foundation to say Ford was going to miss a board meeting, something he hadn’t done in a long time. One day later, Ford called up and asked when the meeting was. After hearing the meeting would be at 8 a.m., the aide told Ford there wouldn’t be enough time for breakfast before.

Folz then remembers Ford asking, “Can you guys get me a muffin.”

“He was so sincere,” Folz said. “He wouldn’t have expected (special treatment) or anything else. I always enjoyed that about him.”

Ford spent some of this summer at his home in Beaver Creek, but friends could see his health was getting worse, Folz said.

“He was here this summer, but it was a little bit of a sketchy stay,” Folz said. “I think everybody felt that he had taken a turn for the worse and didn’t seem to be recovering from it.”

The Vail Valley Foundation Wednesday wil begin organizing a local memorial, Folz said.

Longtime residents agreed that the Fords’ legacy in Vail is indelible.

“He was Vail’s very best friend,” longtime resident Beth Slifer said. “They’re still Vail’s first family.”

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