James West was the first Physician Director of the Betty Ford Center, and served as Medical Director for several years after that. West started his medical career as a gifted surgeon. He was one of the two doctors who performed the world’s first human organ transplant (a kidney). He later completed advanced studies in psychiatry and taught at the University of Chicago prior to joining the medical staff at the Betty Ford Center.
John Schwarzlose is president of the Betty Ford Center.
James West and John Schwarzlose were interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on December 3, 2008 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: Obviously, the bulk of what we are going to talk about is Mrs. Ford, but being in this room must produce its own memories. What’s it like to be back here? John?
Schwartzlose: It’s an incredible room to be in, and the first memory that comes to my mind is the role that President Ford played behind the scenes of the Betty Ford Center. He was very careful to be not out in front, but behind the scenes. And so often, when we sent out a quarterly financial statement, Mrs. Ford would take it to President Ford and say, “Honey, look this over.” And then within an hour I would get a call, “John, can you just stop over for a minute?” And because the Center is so close I’d come over and he’d ask some questions and we would talk and then I’d leave. Then I knew that he would fill Mrs. Ford in. But he always played this role like that, and so when you were called to this room it was always a special thing.
Smith: And I’m told that there were events – for example, I guess you have an alumni reunion every year – and he could be seen cooking hot dogs – that sort of hands-on involvement.
Schwartzlose: Memorial Day we have a cookout for all the patients and all the staff, and he and Mrs. Ford every year came, and shook hands with every patient, every member of the staff. His reputation was handing out soft drinks, Mrs. Ford was giving the hamburger and hot dog buns, and she made sure that he was over there and it was just really something how it happened.
Smith: Tell me, Dr. West, how did the Betty Ford Center come to be the Betty Ford Center?
West: Well, it came to be as a result of – first of all the need in the minds of Betty Ford and Leonard Firestone – that there should be a place to treat one of the most common diseases there are in the United States. It’s an addictive disease. And so both Betty and Leonard Firestone were very much involved. Their concerns were for the people who suffered from this because they were knowledgeable themselves about the disorder, which is called addictive disease. So they talked about it. Both of them were on the board of directors of Eisenhower Hospital, and they got people interested in this idea, and from there generated a move to put together a program to treat addicted people, both alcohol and drug addiction. I’m not sure how they decided to pick a part of the property that Bob Hope gave to Eisenhower to do this, but they picked a corner eventually of the campus to build the buildings that eventually became the Betty Ford Center.
Smith: So it was always seen as, in effect, an adjunct to the Eisenhower Medical Center.
West: It was called the Betty Ford Center at Eisenhower. And I came out here from Chicago having retired as a surgeon in 1981, although I’d been vacationing out here before that. And there was a program going on at Eisenhower Hospital for addicted people. It was called an outpatient program and I was asked to be part of that by Joe Cruz, who was also interested in the genesis of Betty Ford Center. And I remember him coming to me, he was building at Eisenhower things that a physician would do in a program like this: give lectures, do examinations, and so forth, and so on. And she was in another part of the same floor of that hospital building with people who were talking about drapes and furniture and all that kind of stuff, so I knew something was on the way by the time I even got out here.
Schwartzlose: You know, another interesting part of that, even before the Center opened, that both President and Mrs. Ford were involved in. Jim, when the decision was made to build a treatment center, people said, “Well, Mrs. Ford, you’ll put your name on it?” And she said, “Absolutely not.” Her point of view was, as a fairly recent recovering alcoholic woman who had gone public about that herself, to put her name on it was putting too much pressure on her. She said, “What if I take a drink? Alcoholics and addicts can relapse.” But President Ford, more than anyone else, Leonard Firestone in a more minor way, convinced her that putting her name on the treatment center would be like a beacon. It would say, “Here’s a special place of help.” But that was not an easy decision.
Smith: It’s into the language now. It’s part of the lexicon.
West: It turned out to be a fortuitous move, although entered into by Betty with doubts and concerns about all the things that would go on with having a place named after you. It turned out to be the greatest thing as far as this is concerned.
Smith: Let me ask you, because it’s one thing to decide to create a center – explain for the layman – there obviously must be a wealth of different approaches to treating these problems. How did you decide to design the curriculum, if you will, for the Center.
West: Well, the curriculum has been designed by – a curriculum that works – has been designed since about 1935 by a couple of fellows, Bill Wilson and a fellow by the name of Dr. Bob Smith, I believe his name is. They designed a program from the Oxford Group from which both of them were members, that had twelve steps in it.
Smith: Now popularly known as Alcohol Anonymous?
West: They eventually called it Alcohol Anonymous. At first it was just a program, it didn’t have a name on it. But eventually they called it Alcohol Anonymous about two or three years after it got going, in about 1936 or ‘37. So that program had already been functioning 35 or 40 years before Betty and Leonard got involved in the business of making a program. It was a program that had been tried and found to work. So Betty founded the program on the basis of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous, which includes the treatment for addiction.
Schwartzlose: The program, medically, psychologically, spiritually – those Twelve Steps – forms the core of the program. And what’s interesting, all these years later, and over 90,000 patients later, that still forms the core of our program. Where a lot of places who treat alcoholics and addicts have kind on gone on to newfangled ideas and things – we have stuck to the core from the very beginning. Dr. West and I were somewhere and someone said, “Boy, the Betty Ford Center is sure old-fashioned.” And Dr. West and I smiled at them and said, “Yes, we are.” We took it as a great compliment. If you have a system that works, that reaches people, why change?
Smith: And what was her involvement in this period of definition, if you will, of exploration, of deciding what you were going to be and how it was going to be administered? How involved was she in all of that? It must have been a process of self-education.
West: Well, Betty Ford went through a treatment program herself at the Navy Hospital under a Dr. Joe Purch(?), where the basis of the treatment was Alcoholics Anonymous. So when she graduated from that program and came here, she joined all the rest of the members of Alcoholics Anonymous in this community and developed friendships with all of them in her activity in this program. So when she and Leonard and the rest of people that were involved in shaping this program – the Betty Ford Center – it started out they already had this program that they knew worked. It’s as though someone would come to me as a surgeon and say, “You know, I learned a new way to take out an appendix.” Well, there’s only one way to take out an appendix, and not only that, it’s the only way to treat this disease.
There was an article I read in the New York Times just yesterday about some place in the southern part of California – it’s a very expensive place where many movie stars go – although some movie stars come to the Betty Ford Center. And the person who was talking about this with the interviewer said, “It’s very fancy, we have all kinds of different amenities to please the patient, but the people who persist in sobriety, without any relapses, are those people who stick to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.” So all treatment centers that work have that one basis of recovery.
Schwartzlose: What Betty and Leonard did, as Dr. West was describing, they traveled around and said what place has taken that Twelve Steps core and made it work? And they ended up feeling like a well-known place named Hazelton in Minnesota had probably done the best job of incorporating that in their treatment. So they reached out to Hazelton. That’s how people like myself and others ended up coming here because smartly, Mrs. Ford said, “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. We need to take what works and then make it work here.” With one caveat – Hazelton and other centers at that time often had two or three men to every one woman. And Mrs. Ford, much like she turned the world around with breast cancer, said, “I am not going to have a male-oriented treatment center that women have to fit in to.”
And so today, all these years later, fifty percent of our patients have been women, is probably the part Mrs. Ford is as proud of as anything else. And I tell people all over the world, it’s totally because of her. There is no other reason why this has been such a drawing card for women to seek help.
Smith: Is it harder for women than for men to initially seek help?
Schwartzlose: Well, I think it’s harder from a couple of perspectives. Earlier we used to say the stigma for a woman alcoholic was worse. Mrs. Ford would often in her talks refer to the fact that many people connected an alcoholic woman as a loose woman, or a woman with lower morals. And Mrs. Ford did her best to break that stigma down, but that was a very real thing. But today, it’s interesting that it’s still harder for a woman, because with all the progress that we’ve made in our society, we still find it harder for a woman to leave for thirty days or more. It’s almost like that old scenario of the husband leaving and saying, “Well, I’ll miss you and the kids. See you.” And the woman is leaving and the husband says, “Who’s going to watch the kids?” So we think we’ve made a lot of progress, I think we see examples all the time that we still have a ways to go. But Mrs. Ford made such an effort to break those barriers down, and that’s why that fifty percent ratio is such a tribute to her.
Smith: It is interesting because for a while people equated the Betty Ford Center with celebrities. And I assume that gave a mis-impression of what you are all about. Clearly, you had some celebrities, but they were distinctly in the minority.
Schwartzlose: In our number of patients over the years, well-known patients don’t even make point one of one percent, but it’s interesting that in the early days, when we had some well-known people go through, I think Dr. West and I and Mrs. Ford all felt that it had some positives to it, too. It was almost like if so and so can go, then I can go. It’s interesting why we don’t get as many celebrities today is because we treat everyone as a VIP. So there aren’t special privileges for anyone over anyone else.
Smith: And is that not universally the case?
Schwartzlose: No. In some places they cater to the celebrity, and that’s fine if that’s what they want to do. That is not a hard decision for us because the model for us is Mrs. Ford. When she went to treatment at Long Beach Naval Hospital, she was treated like everyone else.
Smith: How difficult was that for her initially? Is there a period of resistance that’s almost universal?
Schwartzlose: Well, Richard, her four children and her husband did an intervention on her. That was a very difficult day. And her feeling, which is typical of people going through that, was anger. How could my own children and my husband turn on my like that? And what you hope is that through tough love that that anger turns to a realization of how hard that was for them to do that. And that’s what happened with Mrs. Ford, too. She agreed to go to treatment. It was a very difficult thing to go. She and President Ford chose to make an announcement about it because of the incredible positives that came from the breast cancer announcement. Again, hoping that it would help a lot of people.
Smith: Is shame something that you have to overcome first?
West: Yes, shame is part of the multiple syndromes of chemical dependency or addiction. And one of the things about going into treatment is the development of what you would call a surrender to the idea that you have an illness that requires this kind of hospitalization or treatment, even outpatient treatment. That comes relatively slowly, but it usually occurs in about the first week or so. Once a person is in a community of other recovering people, they talk with each other and eventually reach the common idea that we’re here because we weren’t able to not do what we were doing. Meaning, being actively addicted. So it’s a very essential part of the treatment. After that the rest of the Twelve Steps kick in, in the way of changing a person to be different than they were when they were addicted. But that involves every kind of discipline in behaviors like selfishness, fear, dishonesty, and resentment are dealt with in the treatment program – which changes the person. Because they aren’t that way during their addiction. Usually they’ve got all kinds of psychological difficulties.
Smith: Has there been a difference, shall we say a stigma, for lack of a better word, attached to alcohol dependency as opposed to drug addiction?
West: Yes, there is. Originally, the Betty Ford Center dealt primarily with people who were addicted to alcohol because it became known as a center for the treatment of alcoholism. But as time went on and as populations changed somewhat, drug addiction became more common, but it was not thought of as a place where you’d go to the Betty Ford Center for treatment. And eventually, over time, more young people and some older people came in who were addicted to those agents like cocaine, opium, and other mood altering substances. Since addictions all work in the same circuit of the brain, all of them, the Betty Ford Center came to be known as a place that treated both alcoholism and drug addiction.
Smith: Have you had well-known alumni who have maintained ties with the Center, or come back from time to time? Becoming, in fact, ambassadors for the place?
Schwartzlose: We do, however, most of the alumni who serve in that kind of role are not well-known. They are just active in their communities and just reach out as ambassadors and things. One of the interesting things about once you begin to get well, it’s hard to be in some kind of celebrity status like you were before. A good example of that is, at the Center Mrs. Ford is not Mrs. Ford. Mrs. Ford is Betty. And more to patients, even, than to staff. Staff, still out of respect, will say Mrs. But to patients – that’s Betty. And it is said with incredible respect, but the familiar first name, and Mrs. Ford loves that. That’s like: you have the same disease I have. It gets it down to the bare essentials. It says so much about Mrs. Ford.
Smith: Tell me about her involvement, direct involvement, both administrative, for lack of a better word, in policy, but also very much one-on-one patient interaction. How did that evolve?
Schwartzlose: Well, it did evolve. But because her name’s on the place, Jim and I saw her so involved. Before we opened our doors we did a shakedown cruise and divided the staff into half, and have each spend three days in treatment because we wanted to check everything from the showers to the facilities. And Mrs. Ford went through, too. She wanted to be very much a part of that. It was a new thing for her. Her image was, this will probably be a Southern California facility with all the population out here. She really didn’t realize the impact she would have. The morning we opened, October 4, 1982, a Monday morning, she went on Good Morning America with David Hartman, and the world knew that Mrs. Ford had opened this center. But in the early days it was growing experience for her.
I remember, we’d been open about three or four months and Mrs. Ford and Mr. Firestone came in my office and they said, “John,” and they seemed quite anxious, quite concerned. They said, “John, how are the patients doing?” And I looked at these two incredible people and I said, “I don’t have the slightest idea.” And I think they were ready to slap me or slug me, and I said, “Because, if we all hired the right professional staff, the right nurses and counselors and physicians, then we know the patients are doing fine.” It sounds like I was a smart alec, but it was a great lesson for both of them that, as board members, as founders, they couldn’t go in and treat. What they could do is provide the environment, the place, where healing can take place. You didn’t have to with them about lessons like that twice. They really got it, didn’t they, Jim? They understood. They would often have Dr. West and I over just to talk about how things were going. They loved to hear about it. But I don’t think you and I could cite an example where they interfered with treatment, I really don’t think…
West: No, the system worked and they were involved in the way it developed in picking the people who were involved in the development, too. There is one other thing I want to mention, too. Throughout the history, early history and later history of the Betty Ford Center, every now and then, some woman would have a particular problem that really affected her adversely with weeping and isolation and so forth. The counselors would call John to get Betty to come over to talk to these people. So she always had a little coterie of specially meeting people who only she could help by talking with them. They would be so impressed. But not only that, but that she would talk the language of recovery to them, and it was so helpful which is such a plus for this treatment center.
Schwartzlose: And she would do it day or night. She would come about every other week to have lunch in the patient cafeteria. She’d sit right in the middle of the room. Every four weeks she would lecture to the patients formally. And in all those years of doing it, every time it was her turn to lecture, she would come in and she looked scared to death. I said, “Mrs. Ford, the patients just want to see you. They don’t care even what you say.” “Oh, but what I say is very important.” We have a place called the Serenity Room at the Center, so every time before she gave a talk to the patients, she’d go into the Serenity Room and just experience the quiet and the serene feeling. She took it so seriously. But she loved those special roles that she had.
Smith: Did she tell her story? Is that how you connect with people initially?
Schwartzlose: Well, she told her story – not only how she got into treatment – but even more importantly, what’s happened since treatment. And all the good and the bad, and what’s worked for her. Those were always closed – just the patients and Mrs. Ford, so she could be very, very open with them.
West: There are other things, too. She talked with all the people, mostly women, from a history of experience that she had. And no matter what the problem is, with most addicted people, the problems will come in clusters and they are very similar to each other. So she would have been through all the kinds of things she would talk to these people about. And that’s the thing that locked them in from the standpoint of being empathic of what she was talking about. They just knew that this lady was experienced in what they were going through.
Schwartzlose: Absolutely. And that was her real love. Now, in addition to that, she was chairman and founder, so she also took that administrative side. How do you run the board of directors, and what’s the right thing to do? She was wanting to do it the right way. One of the interesting things that became kind of a habitual thing over the years is, at least two afternoons a week, she would call me about 3:30-3:45, “John, I’ve got a few things I’d like to go over with you. Can you come over to the house?” So, before I’d get in my car and run over to the house, I’d call my wife because I had a young family at the time, and say, “I won’t be home for dinner.” I knew that.
I’d go to the house and bring all the papers, and she wanted to go over everything. She wanted to do this the right way, go over everything. Well then, invariably, about ten minutes after five, in the room would come President Ford, walking over from his office. I would jump up and say, “Hello, Mr. President,” and he’d say, “Oh, John, don’t get up. I know you two are working, I don’t want to bother you. I’m just going to watch the local news over here.” So he’d go over and sit in his chair and turn the news on. Usually Mrs. Ford would say, “Honey, turn that down a little bit, would you?” Well, within five minutes, Mrs. Ford and I would be talking about something, and he would turn in his chair, “Now honey, are you sure about that?” And Mrs. Ford would go, “Now, Jerry, you’re watching the news.”
And no one would believe it, but it was like a sitcom. For me, it was so funny and so loving to watch the two of them. And sometimes he would just turn his chair around and work with us. Sometimes he’d stay and watch the news. But the fact that she had this Center that was helping so many people, made him so proud. He would talk about it all the time.
Smith: They laughed about this later, but you know, she received the Medal of Freedom long before he did. And there were a number of those instances…my sense was he was just delighted for her to get the recognition.
Schwartzlose: He was. He actually shared with me, and I know he did with others that. He said, “Yes, I know that I was President of the United States and the way that I became president was a quirk of history. But, long-term, Betty’s impact, historically, will be greater because of breast cancer and because of addiction, and how many people she _______.” And he felt that – that was not just saying something. He really felt that.
Smith: In terms of how ordinary people live their lives, very few presidents have an impact that she’s had. Simply by being herself, she made it a lot easier for people to be themselves.
West: I think one of the important things about the success of the Betty Ford Center was the relationship between the CEO – that’s John – and Betty, as the chairman of the board. They had an understanding that almost acted as though, without words, they could get ideas across to each other. Because that had to happen, and many of the times that that occurred in a hospital for people who suffered from a disorder. It’s really a brain disease, involving alcohol, cocaine, opium addiction and so forth, because those kinds of people are under such stress while they are in the program. However, Betty had a kind of aura that imposed a sense of peace to all the buildings. So one of the things that people would say as the weeks went on, they would say, this is a place of peace. And that was so important to them.
Schwartzlose: And, as you say, the campus was so important to Mrs. Ford. She would say to us, “Okay, now these four buildings here are twenty years old now. And they are used by patients 365 days a year. So what do we want them to look like to the six new patients coming in today? Twenty years old? Or a place of welcome and a place of ….” And so, she always made sure that part of our budget was renovating – new carpeting, new chairs, making the place filled with love, because she knew, as Jim said, the environment was so important.
West: Very important.
Schwartzlose: She was insistent that the treatment be gender specific, which was unheard of at the time. So the groups, the halls are divided into men and women’s halls. And she insisted on that. She would go out and speak. One of the things that says a lot about Mrs. Ford, she’d go to Dallas, she’d go to Denver, she’d go to Atlanta. When she’d go those places, she’d talk a little bit about her story, a little bit about the disease, she would not promote Betty Ford Center at all. And people always said to her and to me, everywhere you go, you’re telling people it’s okay to ask for help. Not at Betty Ford Center – anywhere. And they always felt that – that she was like the spokesperson for recovery, for people getting well.
But there are so many funny things that happened. After a while, people would say to her, if she allowed questions and answers, they would say, “Well, Mrs. Ford, why didn’t you go to the Betty Ford Center?” And Betty always would just smile until it hit them that if she hadn’t gotten well there wouldn’t have been a Betty Ford Center. There are just stories like that. Mrs. Ford has a personality that – I always say to people – you have no idea how real she is. She and I’d be walking around campus and she’d say to me, “John, I hope people understand that I didn’t do this. God is who made this a special (?) and made this happen, and he used me as an instrument. But I didn’t do this.” And listening to her, I wanted the world to hear that because it was so real.
Smith: Their faith was very strong, wasn’t it?
Smith: It wasn’t at all transparent because of the religious traditions in which they were each raised. One sensed that it was a defining part of character.
Schwartzlose: Well, it was, and it is interesting, Richard, that in her recovery, because getting well spiritually is so much a part of the recovery from addictive disease, she and President Ford both seemed to grow spiritually. It wasn’t about how often they went to formal church, which they did. But it was about the way they were growing spiritually, and together. It showed in so much – you and I were both there when they both got the Congressional Medal of Honor, and I’ll never forget that talk when President Ford was appealing to the Republicans and Democrats that unless we learn to get along – and he told stories about fighting all day long with Tip O’Neill then going out to dinner together. Why isn’t that happening anymore? Anybody who was at that talk – for me – I’ve never forgotten it. That was a very spiritual talk from my point of view, of reaching out to people.
When Mrs. Ford and I went on Larry King, four different times Larry King asked Mrs. Ford to come out and talk about addiction. She said, “I won’t do it ____________________.” So they sent me there and I would tease all the way as we would drive to the studio. And she would say, “Now, I want you to take all the hard questions.” And I said, “Mrs. Ford, they are not going to ask me any questions. They are going to be asking you questions.” She said, “Well, I’m going to figure out a way to get them over to you as quick as I can.” So what would happen; [when] she was asked a hard question, she’d kick me. The very first time we were on Larry King, she kicked me so hard on one of the questions her shoe came off, and there was a bang. When we went to break Larry King said, “What was that noise?” And she told him the story. That’s Betty. That’s Betty up on the table in the White House dancing – that’s Betty.
West: Betty was really a soft kind of a person. Very gentle, very kind, soft spoken, but basically a firm person, too. She also had ways of expressing that firmness and this was with everybody in society because she has a lot of friends around, and everybody knows her as a kind of soft person. But, on some issues, including addiction and her Center and so forth, and so on, she can be very firm. Not harsh, but she had ideas that are unswerveable about the way that Center should be run and is.
Smith: Give us some examples, if you can think of one.
West: Well, she had a lady she was sponsoring, and I know that that lady would be expected to go to more meetings than she’d been going to, to stay well. But I know that Betty – I wasn’t at this occasion – but I know that she spoke firmly to her. Because that was the important thing. Other people’s sobriety was number one in her goals, in this particular life for her. And it will be part of the legend of her – that she was the perfect example of a person, her home treatment worked, but that also comes with all the benefits of a successful recovering person.
Schwartzlose: Another example of the firmness that you speak to; as you remember, the day we opened the Center, we also started our family program. And people criticized Mrs. Ford for that. They said, “Well, get your treatment thing going first, and then you can deal with families.” She knew, from her own experience with the Ford family, you have to get everyone involved. And so we started from day one, and that’s been one of the things that stands us apart from a lot of other places. And then about twelve years ago, led by Mrs. Ford, we started dealing with children, and we’re still one of the few places in the world with children from seven to twelve years of age, who are living with addiction every day of their life through usually their mother or their father or older brother or sister – and it wasn’t about her being a pioneer, or starting something new – she knew you had to get every member of that family involved. And that’s where I think a good example where you describe as firm, that she knew what was right and she stuck with it.
Smith: Tell me about the finances of the Center. She presumably was a significant fundraiser. Was it a founding goal to make this place as accessible to as many people as possible?
Schwartzlose: Mrs. Ford wanted this to be place that anyone could pick up the phone and seek out. One of her favorite expressions to me is, “John, I want to make sure our charges to the patients are low enough that a schoolteacher in Nashville, Tennessee could come in for treatment.” Why she picked that? But she did. So she would push and push to keep our charges as low as we possibly could. As a non-profit, obviously we didn’t have to have a profit or any return, because that wasn’t about being a non-profit. She insisted that ten to fifteen percent of our patients at all times were getting scholarship help, where they paid a little bit and then the scholarship funds paid all the rest. I described it as “Mission Driven.” She was driven to make sure our mission to reach out to as many people as possible was successful. Now what that took was a lot of successful fundraising, led by her.
When we opened our doors – the first four buildings she and Mr. Firestone had to raise six and a half million dollars to build those first four buildings. They went out to friends, corporations, foundations, and raised the money.
Smith: It probably was harder to raise then, than maybe it would have been ten years later.
Schwartzlose: Oh, yeah, it was. And Betty admitted that that wasn’t something she had done a lot of before. And so she’d always say, “Leonard took me under his wing and taught me how to raise money.” One of their funny stories was they had gone to Las Vegas to see Frank Sinatra perform on someone’s jet. It’s a short trip from Palm Springs to Las Vegas, and there was probably twelve people on the plane, and this was right as they were beginning to raise money. And Mrs. Ford on the way back, on the plane said she had this captive group, said, “I’d love to have this group be the first donors to our treatment center.” And people said – well, what do you say to Mrs. Ford – but they looked around and they said, “What do we have to write pledges on?” Well, the only thing they could find was cocktail napkins. So people, and we still have some of those early napkins – people wrote their pledge on the back of a cocktail napkin. It still counted.
She became less and less bashful about asking people for help. In reality, the main givers have been people and families who’ve been touched themselves. And they are the ones who want to give something back in most cases.
Smith: As an administrator, I suppose she’s not in the position of having to hire and fire. What kind of oversight, for lack of a better word, does she provide? How hands-on?
Schwartzlose: Her hands-on as a chairman was always more, I think in many cases, because her name was on the place. With her grandchildren being out of town, and even more so in the years when President Ford was traveling as a former president, this was her main focus. But interestingly enough, we had over thirty offers to start other Betty Ford Centers. People would say, come to Denver, we’ll give you the money, we’ll build it, you come and put your name on it. And she said no so fast to those, she said, “I’m not going to franchise this. This is not about franchising.” Some of her wisdom – this is something that she did to Dr. West and I since we were there at the beginning, and I use this as an example of – people talk about executive practices, and best practices – of what this woman did. We’d been open about three years and she came to Dr. West and I and said, “I need a commitment from you two.” And I said, “You mean to stay at the Center?” She said, “No, to me.”
Now, think back all these years. How smart of her. So, when someone would come and say, we’d like you to come here and we’ll double your salary – it wasn’t even a question, because it wasn’t about leaving the Betty Ford Center, it was about leaving Mrs. Ford. And I thought about that so much over the years – the wisdom of her to think that way. But that’s how she did. When there were issues, when there were problems, I would come and talk to her about it. She wasn’t the kind to just right there say, “Well, here’s what I think we ought to do.” She’d think about it a while and maybe a day later or two days, I’d get a call, “John, I thought about this option or this option.” Well thought out.
Smith: There are some parallels. I’m thinking of Katherine Graham’s story. Someone who, because of family tragedy was sort of pitched, fairly late in life, into becoming an executive, and the rest, as they say, is history. She really created a whole new life. Talk to me about the succession. It’s obviously one thing to create an institution, and I think in some ways it’s even harder to institutionalize it – to make certain that after you’re gone, it’s going to maintain the standards that you want. When did that begin to be a concern?
Schwartzlose: Well, it’s interesting that the first thing she did in 1993 was establish a chairman’s council, which was a national advisory council. She always kept her board to about ten or eleven people – very small. The first person she put on that advisory council was President Ford. And she really loved it that it gave him an official role. And as he would introduce himself at every chairman’s council meeting, he would say, “I’m a former president, she’s the current one.” And people would laugh. But the two, President and Mrs. Ford, and I’m so fortunate that I’m the one they would share this with – “it would be our dream that a member of our family would want to carry on this dream.” Susan was asked to go on the board of directors. I’m pretty sure no other promises, but would you serve on the board? It meets six to eight times a year, Susan said yes immediately. She later then was asked to chair the finance committee. And then finally in 2003-2004, Betty began to talk to Susan about, at some point, “I’m going to want to step aside, I will stay on the board, but I’d like you to be the chairman. I would love if my own daughter is my successor.” And so, in late 2004, Mrs. Ford brought it up to the board. The board was excited, was enthusiastic, especially since Betty wasn’t retiring, but had Susan be the chair. And Susan, to her credit, from the very beginning, said, “I have one purpose, to keep my mom’s dream alive.”
Susan would do things like, at the 25th anniversary, she stood up in front of 1,800 people and said, “There is only one chairman of the Betty Ford Center, and that’s my mom.” And I give her a lot of credit to say that. But she really wants to keep this alive for her mom, and Susan and I are already beginning to discuss who in the next generation of the Ford family might have an interest in this. Which would now obviously be Mrs. Ford’s grandchildren. If there is no one with an interest, we’ll have to go in a different direction, but that would be the first choice, I think.
Smith: That’s interesting, because that obviously is a story of continuity. All things evolve and change. How does Mrs. Ford handle that side of things? Change? Within continuity.
Schwartzlose: Well, she handled it incredibly, partly because what Susan did was put her arm out and join, saying, “Let’s do this together, Mom.” The two ladies, again in their wisdom, at every meeting, put me between them. And so I’d have bruises on both sides.
Smith: Was she still kicking you?
Schwartzlose: They kind of have fun with that. Up to the time of President’s Ford’s death, they were like that – just arms together. His death has changed that. I’m still on the phone with Mrs. Ford several times a week. She wants to know what is going on, but it’s not the same.
Smith: Is she still grieving?
Schwartzlose: Yes. And so what I do as one person in this is, when we’re together I tell these stories about him coming over at five o’clock and about things he would do for the Center. As you know so well as a historian, those stories are what keeps it alive. But she is still grieving.
Smith: On a personal level – to people who never knew Betty Ford, except they’ve heard the name, or seen the grainy clips of old footage – what should people know about Mrs. Ford?
West: I would say that Mrs. Ford – I always called her Betty, because that’s the way we talked with each other at the Center – Betty will always be an elegant, gracious lady who relates to anybody that talks with her. [She] is very direct, very honest, very sincere, and she emanates a kind of a love to most of the people that come in there as patients. That’s what I would say about Betty.
Schwartzlose: And I think that’s very well said. The only thing I would add to it is, President Ford would often say to people, “It was never my goal to be president. I wanted to be Speaker of the House, if there was a goal.” In many ways, Betty would say the same thing: I never intended to become the face and voice of recovery. It was something I never set out to do. I am a recovering alcoholic and addict, I have the disease. I’ve been able to make a difference in people’s lives, again as an instrument, and I’m very glad I’ve been able to make a difference like that. But it wasn’t like something she set out to do. We talk about them being from the Midwest. Dr. West and I are from the Midwest, we see that in both of them. They are not complicated people, but they are very sincere.
Smith: Perfect. Thank you so much.
Schwartzlose: Thank you, it was a pleasure to talk about them.