GRAND RAPIDS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A man who witnessed one of the most tragic moments in U.S. presidential history was in West Michigan Tuesday to honor late first lady Betty Ford in the days following what would have been her 99th birthday.
Former U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Clint Hill served during the Ford administration as well as during the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
“The people of Michigan should be epically proud of Betty Ford. She was so courageous, she was a little bit outspoken but she talked about things like equal rights amendment and Title IX, breast cancer and of course addiction to both medication and alcohol. And she really has saved the lives of millions of people around the world because she was that outspoken,” Hill said.
Hill was assigned to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on Nov. 22, 1963 – the day her husband was shot and killed.
“I was in the motorcade in Dallas. I heard the shots fired, I reacted. I was in a car behind the presidential vehicle. I reacted by jumping from my position on that car, running to the presidential vehicle with the intent of getting up on the rear of it to form a shield or barrier to protect both president and Mrs. Kennedy. Unfortunately just as I arrived at the car, the fatal shots were fired. Then Mrs. Kennedy came up on the trunk, but I was able to get up and push her into the back seat and at that point it was obvious – the president had suffered a fatal shot. I unfortunately had to witness all of that and be a participant,” Hill said.
He went on to protect Jacqueline Kennedy for the year following the death of her husband.
“After the assassination, she was really strong. (She) stood tall and I think that helped the American people to withstand what did happen that day in Dallas,” said Hill.
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Betty Ford also left her mark on America. Her daughter Susan Ford Bales and the granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower reflected on her impact during a Tuesday luncheon at Fredrik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
“I think her legacy is being preserved. I think it is a gentle reminder because Mary Eisenhower is going to be talking about her grandmother and her grandmother and my mother were friends. The relationship they had together as a friendship and aren’t we lucky to have people like this to talk about true friendships,” said Ford Bales.
Betty Ford will always be remembered for being outspoken on a number of issues, including breast cancer and her addiction to medication and alcohol.
“Back when that (her breast cancer diagnosis) happened, it’s something you didn’t talk about. But also talking about her addiction issues and alcoholism. That’s a more common thing you are hearing about today with the huge opioid crisis. But there are still so many changes that have to be made and it’s not something pretty to talk about, and that’s the difficult part. I think if people realize what an outspoken person she was, they would realize how amazing she was – that I already know,” Ford Bales said.
Mary Jean Eisenhower said Betty Ford’s candid discussions about breast cancer changed her life in a very personal way.
“I think the main thing that has come close to my own heart was the breast cancer awareness she created. Sha made it almost your duty to learn about it, which at that time nobody was talking about it. If you got it you didn’t tell anybody. She was a pioneer on that I think indirectly many generations ago, but indirectly she saved my life because people started research and things like that after she came out (about her breast cancer,)” Eisenhower said.
The discussion was moderated by Author Lisa McCubbin, who is working on a biography of Mrs. Ford.
“It’s really a story of this ordinary girl from Grand Rapids, Michigan who ended up in the White House either by accident or destiny. She’s left all of us such a remarkable legacy with her outspokenness about breast cancer, breast cancer awareness also of course with the Betty Ford Center and alcohol and drug addiction,” McCubbin said.
Her book on Betty Ford should be released in about a year to commemorate what would have been the first lady’s 100th birthday.
“Everybody I’ve spoken to about Betty Ford says the same thing: she was the most gracious, and the most fun, the most upbeat. (She was a) wonderful, beautiful woman – you couldn’t write a bad book about Betty Ford,” said McCubbin.