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Nancy Smith

Betty Ford, Extraordinary Woman, My Hero

July 8, 2011 - 6:00pm

Not a happy morning, waking up Saturday to discover Betty Ford had died at the age of 93. Ive lost one of my heroes.

I loved Betty Ford for probably a dozen different reasons -- her vulnerability, her courage, her trailblazing candor. This was a womans woman with a quick mind, an independent spirit and a heart as large as the world she lived in.

I met her once in the late-1980s, in a reception line during an Associated Press Managing Editors' meeting in Seattle. A few words, a handshake, eye contact, not much more than that. But enough never to forget her or the moment.

The former first lady had a powerful presence.

I close my eyes and I can still see the mood ring she was wearing. What other first lady at age 70 would wear such a symbol of a defiant age? Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush? I doubt it. Maybe Hillary Clinton, I dont know.

Im sure every journalist who lived out loud in the 70s, especially the women, especially the ones who stayed close to her, are writing about Betty Ford today. I cant add much new. Its a personal thing, this need for me to join in.

But I do have to say this, and I think it speaks volumes about this amazing woman:

In 1971, even before Gerald Ford was President Richard Nixon's vice president, the National Press Club invited my friend, Kate Webb -- a New Zealand-born Vietnam War correspondent for United Press International -- to address the Press Club in Washington, D.C. Kate was deserving of the honor. She had been captured in Cambodia, held prisoner for 23 days, and reported killed in action -- until her captives released her and one day she just walked out of the jungle. What a story she had to tell.

The day she stood before the National Press Club to tell it, who was there to listen but Betty Ford, the wife of the House minority leader from Michigan. She had asked to be there. She wanted to meet Kate. In fact, she sat at a table directly in front of the podium.

"I remember this woman coming up to me with a big smile on her face," Kate would tell me years later. "She introduced herself as 'Betty Ford, one of the Americans who would be over there fighting, too, if somebody would give me a gun.' She told me I was brave and she thanked me for telling the world the story of the war every day.

"Then she opened up my hand and put a clay medal in it. She said a child made it for her but she wanted me to have it."

It's a Betty Ford story I never forgot and I don't think Kate did either. Betty was, at that point, just a congressman's wife. This wasn't a vice president's or president's wife doing her duty. This was just one extraordinary woman appreciating another extraordinary woman.

I know this first lady loved her country and her husband and was never afraid to show either publicly. And I know she's better known for her addictions and her breast cancer, for her work with handicapped children and for the Betty Ford Center she established to restore the lives of what have been so far hundreds of thousands of addicts.

I, on the other hand, will always remember her best for the beautiful things she was.

This nonjudgmental inspiration, this devout Republican and yes, she absolutely was that -- championed womens rights the Equal Rights Amendment, women in the military, preserving abortion rights in America. No wonder her daughter grew up strong and free-thinking.

God keep Betty Ford.
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This is an opinion column by Nancy Smith. Reach Nancy at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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