A crowd of 450 people came to Frederick Meijer Gardens Tuesday at noon to see Susan Ford, daughter of First Lady Betty Ford, and Mary Jean Eisenhower, granddaughter of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, speak about White House memories and what it’s like to be related to women who have left legacies on America. “America’s First Ladies: An Enduring Legacy” is an annual event that, this year, celebrated First Ladies Ford and Eisenhower.
Author Lisa McCubbin, who is working on a biography of Betty Ford, moderated a Q&A with the two women, and asked them questions about the White House, family memories and their relationships with the first ladies and presidents.
Both women remarked that Camp David was a fun refuge for White House families.
“It was one of the places that the press was not involved,” Ford said, who was 17 years old at the White House. “You could go up there and be silly and you weren’t going to see it in the newspaper the next day … My dad and I would go up and play tennis together. You could just be a family.”
Ford also laughed about the adventures of being a teenager, like rollerskating on the White House marble floors, or lighting off fireworks when it’s illegal in the District of Columbia, or even getting out of a test with help from her secret service.
Eisenhower, who was born during the her grandfather’s presidency, was christened in the Blue Room of the White House. While she doesn’t have many memories in the White House, she remembers the strong personality of her grandmother, whom she called Mimi.
“She was a multifaceted person,” Eisenhower said. “She was very prim and proper, she was very gentle, but don’t get on her bad side. She was my mentor, she was my best friend, she was everything to me.”
The women both spoke on how breast cancer had affected their lives. Ford, whose mother Betty had breast cancer as first lady, and Eisenhower, who was inspired to get a mammogram by Betty, and who is also a breast cancer survivor.
“I was stage two with lymph nodes, too, just like her,” said Eisenhower, referring to Betty, whose cancer had progressed to the lymph nodes, which is usually a sign that it may have spread. “It seemed to me that it never occurred to her that she was going to die from it, at least that’s how it came across to all of us, and that was an inspiration to me as I was recovering as well.”
“She has always been the glue that stuck our family together,” Ford agreed.
Ford said when her mother got breast cancer as first lady, six weeks after the family moved into the White House, she was scared.
“Here, my dad had taken this new job that he really didn’t want,” Ford said, followed by laughter in the crowd. “Back then, when you have stage two and lymph nodes and all, you don’t survive. So I was pretty convinced that my mother was going to die.”
Ford said the thought of taking over as first lady scared her, too. Betty survived, and was very open about her breast cancer, and inspired many across the country to get screened for breast cancer.
“She opened the door for all women to take control of their own lives,” said Dr. Judy Smith, Chief of the Spectrum Health Cancer Center. “And she began to make it permissible to talk about two things, cancer and breasts.”
Elaine Bower, director of Spectrum Health Breast Cancer Services, said between the 15 sites around the state, mammograms and other diagnostic tests, the department is performing about 95,000 breast cancer-related procedures each year.
“We’re pretty proud,” Bower said. “But we have a big name to live up to.”
Before the Q&A, the panelists expanded on their families.
Ford attributed both of her parents’ accomplishments to the community that raised them.
“I’m just glad to call Grand Rapids apart of my life because I look at what they did, they created two really incredible people,” Ford said. “There’s just a feeling of warmth here and it’s nice to come back, it’s nice to see family.”
Ford added that when she visits she always stays in the “Pantlind” hotel, which is now the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
“The Pantlind is still the Pantlind Hotel to me because that’s where we stayed as kids when we came back in the summertime,” Ford said.
Eisenhower is currently the CEO of People to People, International, which was started by President Eisenhower in 1961. She said she didn’t understand her grandfather’s passion for the non-profit until later on in life.
“All of a sudden, it became my passion too,” Eisenhower said. “It’s kind of fun because we literally share the same passion. Sometimes when I’m giving a speech or something I have a little letter that I wrote to him, as a report from the current President/CEO to the original chairman of the board, and I’ve told him what all we’ve done in the years, it makes me feel very happy because I think he’d be happy, too.”