Maury DeJonge was a reporter at The Grand Rapids Press, where he covered local government and politics for 30 years. He covered President Gerald R. Ford’s career and later served as the Kent County Clerk in Michigan.
Maury DeJonge was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on August 8, 2008 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: One name that is a legend locally, for better or worse, is Frank McKay. Who was Frank McKay?
DeJonge: Frank McKay started his political career as the circuit court assignment clerk in the old County Building. Frank made a lot of friends from local attorneys – big attorneys. In the course of time these people owed Frank favors. Frank just used that office as a stepping stone to form his own political organization. One of the guys that he not only promoted, but saw elected was Bartel Jonkman, known locally as Barney Jonkman. Barney Jonkman served in Congress for a number of years. When the war ended it was Jerry Ford, who I had never met, Jerry Ford was backed by the Home Front group: Paul Goebel, former mayor, as you know, of Grand Rapids – wonderful person; Doc Ver Meulen, a local dentist – these guys are all dead. The ones who really got behind Jerry Ford.
Smith: The Home Front – I’m trying to make this connection between the opposition to the MacKay organization – was that part of this?
DeJonge: Absolutely, and they worked hard to take the power away from Frank MacKay and his representative in Washington, Barney Jonkman.
Smith: How much power did MacKay have?
DeJonge: A lot. Frank MacKay was on trial in the Detroit area, I believe, for murder. The story is that he hired the Purple Gang out of Detroit to murder a state senator – I can’t remember his name – who was to testify before a grand jury. The day before he was called to testify, he was on his way to Detroit and he was shot and killed. They felt that – nobody was able to prove it – that Frank MacKay was behind that murder and that he had been in contact with the Purple Gang to conduct the murder. So they were totally in opposition to Frank MacKay. These people that I mentioned, Paul Goebel and Doc Ver Meulen, these were persons who, in Grand Rapids, were highly respected, who hated the fact that MacKay had taken control of the Republican party in Kent County and beyond. Frank MacKay, the story is – and I’m sure it’s true, got a kickback from every sack of cement that went into that bridge in Port Huron – and became a very wealthy man.I even got a threatening letter one time from him. He had a county supervisor in Plainfield Township who was under his thumb. I heard that this person had zoned all of Frank MacKay’s land in Plainfield Township – now the city of Walker. He zoned it agriculture and it was residential. Frank MacKay paid about ten dollars a year in taxes. I heard about that and I wrote a series of two stories. Jay Smith was the name of the supervisor. I exposed it in the paper and I got a letter from Frank MacKay and I have one regret – that I didn’t save the letter. There was a veiled threat that if I didn’t lay off – blah blah blah – which I didn’t take seriously and I tossed the letter. I wish I’d kept it. So, anyway, that’s how strong he was.
Smith: Did he hold court? MacKay Tower – was that his office?
DeJonge: Yeah. One of the deskmen at the Grand Rapids Press, Fred Baker, at the time was the business reporter, went to see Frank MacKay. He wanted a car – this was during the war – and MacKay said, “What kind do you want?” He was interested in an Oldsmobile. This was on a Saturday. Frank MacKay called the Oldsmobile plant and he said, “There will be a man by the name of Fred Baker at such and such a gate on Saturday. Have a car ready for him.” The car was there. There was no mention of cost, but Fred was an honest man and did pay for that car. But I mean, that’s how much power – these cars were rationed – you couldn’t buy a car, as you know during World War II. I had to wait until I got back from overseas – I had my name in two places for a car – I waited two years. Frank MacKay got it within a matter of a few days.
Smith: What was the source of his power?
DeJonge: Looking back, it had to be that so many people were indebted to him for favors that he did over the years.
Smith: Now when did Vandenberg fit into all this, because he’d been a newspaperman and apparently enjoyed the support of the organization early on. Of course, by ’48, when Ford ran for Congress, I assume that he’d broken – I mean Vandenberg supported Ford against Jonkman.
DeJonge: Oh yeah. Well, Vandenberg was with the group of Paul Goebel and Doc Ver Meulen and would naturally have been supportive of Jerry Ford’s efforts. Let me backtrack. I said Fred Baker wanted the car – while Fred was talking to MacKay in his office, the phone rang, and it was a friend. The friend, Fred said “I could only hear one voice – MacKay’s” – he said, “You need a car?” “Yes,” and then it was the car that MacKay got for this friend of his, while Fred Baker was sitting there listening to the conversation, with no mention made of cost.
Smith: That’s power.
Smith: Tell me, when Ford came back from the war – what had his father’s role been in the local political scene? He apparently was quite active.
DeJonge: Yes, he was. I knew him only for a short time because I joined the paper when I graduated from the Calvin College in June of ’50. At that time, my first year at the Press, I was assigned to cover the Grand Rapids Board of Education and the Kent Intermediate School District. I did that for one year and then the person who was covering politics was moved over to city hall and the city editor and the managing editor and the editor appointed me to cover politics starting in 1951, August. I covered that until just about the day I left the Press to become Kent County Clerk and Register of Deeds. That was in with the death of Jack Bronkema, who was the Clerk Registrar and that was 1979, November.
Smith: Tell us about Jerry Ford, Sr. What was he like? It has become clear talking to people and reading what the President himself had to say, that his father was the biggest single influence in his life.
DeJonge: Jerry Ford, Sr., if you didn’t know who his son was, and later met Jerry Ford, Jr. – you would think that was his natural father – his biological father, because they were so similar. Jerry Ford, Sr. was well respected all through Kent County. He was chairman at the time I started covering politics of the Kent County Republican Committee – for a short time, possibly a year, or not more than two. Then I lost track of Senior and my introduction to Jerry Ford, Jr. began.
Smith: Did you know his mother at all – Dorothy?
DeJonge: Yes, I did. I met her, really, only one time, but it was memorable because Jerry had been elected Minority Leader of the House. He defeated Charley Halleck from Indiana. He was in town to visit his mother – he had a local office, too – and I heard that Jerry was going to have breakfast with his mother in the Waters Building, which is on Fulton. I got in touch with Jerry and I said, “Jerry, can I bring a camera to your mother’s apartment and have breakfast with you?” He said, “Oh, absolutely, Maury.” And so I came with our photographer Ralph Truax, who is dead now. His mother was like a mother hen over Jerry. Here he was now, the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives and she said to him, “Now Jerry, don’t work too hard.” And he said, “I won’t, Mother.” Just that simple exchange. She was, in my impression, a very kind person – a person who was just in love with her natural son and it was a good relationship – very strong – you could feel it.
Smith: This may be speculative, so I preface it with that. In ’48 he took on Jonkman and that was also the year that he first proposed to and then married Betty. And over the years – it’s a little murky – the sequence of events where he proposed to her but said he couldn’t set a date, and he couldn’t really say why he couldn’t set a date. The story was – the public story was – he wanted to take Jonkman by surprise, and so he couldn’t tell her what his political plans were. The alternate story is – and we’ve heard it from a number of people – given the sort of cultural conservatism of this area – he probably thought twice about letting it be known that he was going to marry a divorcee before the Republican primary. Is that something that could have, in fact, turned off some voters?
DeJonge: Yes, it could have, because – and times have changed – but back in ’48 I was a junior in college and if you were divorced, you were almost without a name, particularly in the Dutch Reform churches. And Catholics weren’t fond of divorce, either. But divorce was rare with many of the Dutch voters and church members in Grand Rapids. The churches’ rules were pretty stiff on that.
Smith: For the people who don’t know Michigan and they hear about the Dutch – explain who the Dutch were and what their impact was on the local culture and politics.
DeJonge: It was considerable although the Dutch kind of stayed away from politics. Politics – it wasn’t dirty – but it wasn’t real nice. So they kind of stayed away from it. But their influence was great because the ones that came to this area of west Michigan were hard working. Many of them farmers. Many of them skilled factory workers. The Dutch had a thing that if your father was a baker, you would be a baker. If your father was a farmer, you would be a farmer. I remember in my sociology class, my sociology professor said the most clannish people in the world are Jews. Next, right behind are the Dutch. If you weren’t Dutch, they didn’t warm up to you right away.
Smith: I assume the impact would show itself – there was nothing open on a Sunday in this town.
DeJonge: No, and they didn’t buy the Sunday paper. The one they should have not bought was Monday’s because that was being printed on Sunday. I knew a former commissioner from the city of Wyoming who would go to the drugstore on Saturday night, buy a Sunday paper and have them put it in a brown paper bag as he walked home. But that has all changed and there are people who still feel the Dutch are that conservative yet, but it’s not true. We have, I would say, a dozen or more divorced persons in my Christian Reformed Church. And we just had a nice sermon Sunday on Sunday observance. Far different than when I was growing up. I had a friend, we were at a cottage on Silverlake up by Hart, and his kids were with him and my two children – a girl and a boy. We let them swim on Sunday. His kids – four boys – asked if they could go swimming. His dad said, “You can go up to your knees, but don’t splash.” True story.
Smith: That’s wonderful. That’s local color. Ford was a real fiscal conservative, there’s no doubt about that. But it is interesting, because at one point I believe the story is true: there were people in and around Grand Rapids, when he was on the House Appropriations Committee – in particular the Defense sub-committee – and they wanted to get a military base for this area. Thought it would be a great boon for their community and – what’s the point of having a Congressman on those committees – and he strongly discouraged that, because he thought it was not a stable base for the area economy. Just too subject to boom and bust and all of that. That shows some courage, to say no to your friends who come to you asking for what seems to them perfectly logical.
DeJonge: They brought a weather school in. A weather school, but the numbers were almost insignificant. But some of those guys, the soldiers who were assigned to the weather school, met and married nice Dutch girls. But the numbers were not significant. But you talk about courage – that’s Ford’s middle name. Look at the courage he showed when he pardoned Nixon.
Smith: What was the local reaction when that happened?
DeJonge: There were many against it, there were many for it. I would say, probably, more at the time were against that pardon. As a newspaper person, I favored it – it was time. And I have had several interviews with Ford on that subject.
Smith: You know, it is interesting – he said, everywhere he went, that was always the first question people asked, until November, 2001, when the Kennedy Library gave him the Profiles of Courage Award for the pardon. And he said, after that, people didn’t ask the question. It was almost as if the page had been turned.
DeJonge: Is that right? Well, look what’s happened now. People who never spoke kindly about President Ford, and I’m talking about the national media, now they say, it was a great move that took a lot of courage. Ford, in his death, has risen in the eyes of the national media.
Smith: It is interesting – that week I was wearing two hats. I was working for ABC for most of the week and then I was back here with the family, and it was very clear that the media was taken aback by the reaction, and it seemed to grow as the week went along. My theory, in part was, you had a lot of young people who were being introduced to Ford for the first time. It is sort of like when Harry Truman died, and they were contrasting what they were seeing with what they had come to expect in the last couple of presidencies and they liked what they saw. I think that fed into this kind of instant reassessment of Ford – what kind of man he was – what kind of president he was – and all of a sudden, he seemed awfully attractive as an alternative to the kind of ugly partisanship that pervades politics today.
DeJonge: You know, I’m not sure we ever had a Congressman before Ford like Ford, and I’m not sure we ever will have another.
Smith: What kind of Congressman was he?
DeJonge: He was a guy, if he met you one time, he would never forget your name. So you felt a kinship with this guy. Jerry and I had a close relationship. Very close. It was this relationship he carried on even with persons he was meeting for the first time. By the time they finished talking with Jerry, they felt they had a friend, and he would never forget their name. I said to him one time, this was after he was president, I said, “Jerry, how in the world can you keep up a schedule like this and still be very lucid and everything about you is very calm.” He said, “I have the ability – I can tell my staff, even if I’m on Air Force One, I’m going to take a fifteen minute nap. Wake me up.” He said, “I can go to sleep, in fifteen minutes wake me up – I’m ready to go.” That’s not me – no way.
Smith: He liked people – you can’t fake it. You can’t fake a career – liking and caring about other people.
DeJonge: In the years that I covered politics I met more phonies in my life and there are more phonies than there are genuine people. Jerry was genuine, you felt it the first time you met him and it never faded. This guy was so real it’s unbelievable. I tell you, when Jerry died I shed tears. When I retired I got as many letters from Democrats complimenting me for having a decent attitude toward both parties. As a matter of fact, when I was appointed county clerk by the Sixth Circuit Court judges, because I had covered county government as well, the secretary of the Michigan Republicans came in my office – Hank Fuhs. He said, “Maury, I’m going to have to ask you a question. You’ve covered politics all these years and the judges have appointed you. As a party, I have to ask you, are you a Republican or a Democrat?” I said, “Henry, you have just paid me the ultimate compliment if you had to ask what I am.” I have been a closet Republican all my life, and it goes back to my dad and his dad. But I considered that a compliment.
Smith: Very complimentary. Ford as a young man had a temper and worked very hard, with the help of his mother, to overcome it. Did you ever see his temper?
DeJonge: I asked him that. I said, “Jerry, have you ever really been angry since you have been in Congress?” He said, “One time. A guy came in my office and Anna Kampstra, who you are going to be interviewing, Anna Kampstra sent him in, and [he] was offering me a bribe.” He said, “Immediately – my temper soared, I said you’ve got fifteen seconds to get out of my office and never come back – that’s the only time I had anger.” Ford always said he could disagree with his opponents in the House without becoming disagreeable, and that’s what he achieved.
Smith: Clearly, very early – almost from his arrival – in the House, say by contrast with people like Jack Kennedy or Richard Nixon, it was pretty clear their ambitions were elsewhere and it seemed pretty clear Ford wanted to make his career in the House. That was going to be his venue and the old Bulls who ran the place pretty quickly took notice of this young guy who wasn’t flashy, wasn’t eloquent, but who did his homework – who worked harder than anyone else, who asked smarter questions than anyone else – and then they began singling him out for choice assignments within a few years of his arrival in DC.
DeJonge: No question. I observed him – my wife and my two children were with me – and he was Minority Leader and the people in Grand Rapids didn’t – I don’t think they realized how much power Ford had. Not wicked power – good, honest to goodness power. And when he entered the floor of the Chamber, the Congressmen just huddled around him to get their marching orders. And that opened my eyes. I knew Ford, but when I saw the respect that his peers were giving him once he called the meeting to order there on the House floor, it was something to see.
Smith: That raises a sensitive issue – the whole question of his intelligence. There were the gags about him bumbling and stumbling and all that sort of thing. Tell me about his mind, not his IQ. Tell me about his smarts.
DeJonge: He was so much smarter than what he was given credit for or he would have never gone as far as he did. Even to the appointment of vice president. I was there that night when Ford was in his home – there was a light rain falling – and the neighbors had gathered around his house. He came out and he spoke to them in the same way he would speak to you or me, in such a humble way.
I had given a speech to public administrators of the country from the big corporations. They were going to get Stewart Alsop, but Alsop died and so someone told this group about me and my relationship with Ford and they contacted me and I went and I took my son. When I finished my speech I had made arrangements with Ford to meet him in the Vice Presidential office, which was very impressive because his office in Grand Rapids was small.
Smith: Where was his office?
DeJonge: In Grand Rapids? It was on Cherry, on the north side of Cherry where it takes a bend to go on toward downtown. Small office. There was a Marine guard at the first floor. I told him I had an appointment with Vice President Ford, so he ushered me upstairs, and his secretary served me a cup of coffee on Vice Presidential china and I thought, “Hot Dog!” In a matter of five minutes she said, “you may go in Mr. DeJonge.” I went in and Jerry was sitting at his great big desk a mile and a half away, and he said, “Maury, welcome.” I said, “Jerry, this is scary,” and he says, “Why?” I said, “It’s all so different. You’re Vice President, you’re in this huge office.” He said, “Maury, nothing has changed – remember that.” That was Ford – didn’t change when he became president. It kind of surprised me. I knew Nixon was a friend, and Ford was a friend of Nixon, but I didn’t realize that they were so close that Nixon would appoint him in his retirement or vacancy.
I was there when he was sworn in – heard his inaugural speech. Went in – I wasn’t supposed to go in the room – but these high rollers from Congress and Senate didn’t know me, and so when they went into this big room for a little reception, I went in like I was one of them. I had an interview with Chief Justice Berger. I told him who I was, I was a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press, and he looked at me and he said, “I usually don’t give interviews to reporters, but since you’re from the new president’s hometown I’ll make an exception.” So I had a nice interview with him.
Smith: This was right after the swearing in?
DeJonge: Right after the swearing in.
Smith: What was Berger’s mood?
DeJonge: He sounded very, very happy that Nixon was gone and Ford was in. It didn’t take long for people to realize – those who really studied this guy – to appreciate who he was, how honest he was. I have yet to hear, other than Democrats who didn’t vote for him, say well, he’s a lousy speaker and – and he was not a spellbinder. Just like this guy we’re dealing with now, Obama. You know, he makes McCain look kind of sick. McCain was looking down at his notes all the time and Obama was free as a bird in his speeches. But it didn’t take long for people to really come to, not only appreciate, but to love Jerry Ford.
Smith: And yet the public didn’t ‘get it’ in those two and half years, and going back to what you said earlier, it wasn’t until his death that people got this more vivid sense of who he really was. David Broder wrote, it was too late for the American people to finally realize, this was the kind of guy we want, we say we want, for president, but we didn’t know it at the time. We didn’t appreciate it.
DeJonge: That’s right. I sat next to David Broder when Ford made his announcement that he had chosen Bob Dole. Before he came out on the platform, Broder said to me, “You’re from Grand Rapids?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Do you have any idea who is he going to appoint?” I said no, absolutely not. It was a surprise to everyone when he picked Bob Dole, because you know the reputation Bob Dole had. I asked Ford that question in one of my interviews with him at his home in Rancho Mirage. If you will just give me a second because that question, I think – here it is.
“What was your reasoning in selecting Senator Dole as your running mate in 1976?” This interview was January, 1979. “Had you asked others before going to Dole?” Answer: “We had gone through a rather extensive process in putting together a list of about ten or twelve names. We had our polling people, as I recall, take about fifteen names. We had an in depth poll nationwide. After those results came back, we whittled it down and we then checked and double-checked with party leaders, with other individuals in and out of the White House. When we got down to the night after my nomination in Kansas City, as I recall, we had about five names and we talked and discussed the pluses and minuses of the five people. The next morning, bright and early, we went over the list again, and on the basis of that process, I selected Bob Dole. It wasn’t an easy job, and we tried to do it as objectively as possible. When we concluded the campaign, I think Bob Dole did for the ticket what I felt had to be done.” I said, “Were you ever sorry over the choice?” Answer: “I never regretted the choice. I think Bob Dole’s part on the ticket, which was aimed at helping to get the southern team, western states, he achieved that result. We did it with the exception of one state, Texas.”
Smith: You said you were at the ’76 convention Talk about the ’76 convention. Going into that convention, was it still uncertain as to the outcome?
DeJonge: You bet. Practically until the last state was called we were not sure that Reagan wouldn’t be the – and we had guys from Kent County who were supportive of Reagan.
Smith: Talk about that.
DeJonge: One of them worked with a stocks and bonds outfit in the Waterville Building. I used to argue with him. I said, what in the world, why are you for Reagan, who is running against Ford from Grand Rapids, who is the vice president – now president? He said, I just think Reagan would be a better man – and he voted that way at the convention. So there were some Kent County supporters for Reagan and it wasn’t until that last state, and I can’t recall, that we were absolutely sure. Nancy Reagan tried to steal the show by going into a dance – and the delegates thought that was wonderful. Betty decided, oh no, she’s not getting away with that. Betty got up and she was a pro dancer, and Betty outdid her and everybody clapped longer. It didn’t hurt.
Smith: Tell me, did you get to know Mrs. Ford?
DeJonge: Oh man, did I know Betty.
Smith: Tell us about Betty Ford – because they would seem to be opposites attracting.
DeJonge: Let me show you a couple of pictures that will tell you. There’s me and Betty and Sheila Weidenfeld, her secretary. Here was the day before the election in ’76, Ford gave a farewell speech at the airport in which he broke down. I have that on tape, which I did not bring. He said, “All that I am, I owe to my father, Gerald R. Ford, Sr., and my mother Dorothy Ford.” And then he broke down. I’m telling you, just about everybody in there – it was a good crowd there – just about everybody cried.
Smith: That’s when they were dedicating the mural.
DeJonge: Yeah. See, I was in Vail when Paul Collins did the painting. Paul Collins, while I was interviewing Ford in the chalet where he was staying, was doing drawings. Then when he got back to Grand Rapids, he finished those drawings as you see now. But, you asked about Betty.
Smith: Yeah. Tell us, because she would seem to be something of a free spirit.
DeJonge: Yeah, she was good for Ford.
Smith: Tell us about that.
DeJonge: I started to tell you, this was at the tarmac at Kent County Airport the day before the election – or the day of the election in ’76. Ford was saying goodbye and this picture, this also of Ford and Betty.
Smith: They look to be in very good spirits. Do you have a sense of what their mood was about the prospects for the election?
DeJonge: I think Ford had closed the gap so fast at the end and it is just a turkey’s shame that he wasn’t elected. He would have made a fine president.
Smith: Do you have a sense of what his mood really was at that point, in terms of their expectations?
DeJonge: I don’t think that Ford was surprised he lost. He felt it deeply, no question about that. And he did a very kind thing for me. The day he left the White House to go to California with Betty, he called me from the White House and I wrote a story on his reaction. He said it hurts to lose. Ford just wasn’t used to losing – whether he played football or whether he was in politics, he wasn’t used to losing, but he was gracious in his defeat. As you know, he and Carter became close friends.
Smith: Let’s go back – I really would love to hear you talk about Betty. Tell us about Betty Ford.
DeJonge: Ford always credited Betty. In his failure to be present when the kids were growing up, he always said, “That job fell on Betty and I’m sorry for that – I was gone most of the time.” Betty accepted that role because she was so in love with the guy. I don’t think she had a bitter moment in her relationship and marriage with Jerry Ford. I really feel that. I got to know Betty and stuff like this wouldn’t happen.
Smith: She was very unlike him, wasn’t she?
DeJonge: She came from a modeling career – she came from a professional dancing career. Ford was none of these. Ford was just such a downright, likeable, honest person – the words fail you – the guy – we won’t see him again.
Smith: She also had – it’s sort of legendary – she had a sense of humor that she didn’t hesitate to poke fun at him.
DeJonge: Yeah, I can’t say I ever heard her poke fun of Jerry. When he came to Grand Rapids, if Betty was not with him, he would always say, “Betty sends her love.” It got to be kind of a joke between myself and a reporter from the Grand Rapids Herald, Jim Mudge, who later worked for Ford. I’d say, “Betty sends her love,” and pretty soon Jerry would say, “Betty sends her love.” It got to be kind of a joke, but that’s how much these two people thought of each other. She was beautiful.
Smith: Her interest in clothes and her interest in the arts were on a level with Jackie Kennedy’s. Unlike Mrs. Kennedy, she’d actually had a career – she had been a dancer. Martha Graham was her teacher and you can’t get much more involved in the arts than that. This must have been a bit of shock to the Dutch Calvinists – the Calder sculpture. How did that burst upon the scene?
DeJonge: There was a county commissioner, a friend of mine by the name of Bob Blandford. Bob was a city commissioner and because he held that office he was a member of the Board of Supervisors, which at that time was seventy-seven members. Bob Blandford was a guy who never kept his mouth shut and I think on his second meeting on the Board of Supervisors he stood up and made a speech. Old John Collins, who ruled the roost on the board, never fully stood up, he would half-stand up and he said, “Mr. Blandford, you have to be a member of this board for two years before you’re allowed to say a word.” But that didn’t shut Bob up. Blandford was the guy who fought that Calder and he gave me lots of stories in his criticism of the Calder. But Stuart Hoffius, who was the senior circuit court judge and who asked me to become county clerk. Stuart Hoffius and a very beautiful blond lady – now I won’t be able to remember her name – I think Alexander Calder fell in love with her because she was very pretty – she pushed it and Stuart Hoffius also was impressed with this lovely lady. They won out and Blandford kept up his attack for all it was worth. They had to cover $25,000 worth of plumbing – they were going to have a fountain in the plaza and the plumbing was in and covered with concrete. They had to dig it all up to put the Calder in. But the community has accepted it because there are visitors who come to see the Calder.
Smith: The Calder was funded with federal funds – the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities?
DeJonge: Yeah, and that was Blandford’s opposition – that it could be spent more wisely. Oh he had all sorts of names for it – piece of junk – and then the art lovers in Grand Rapids and Kent County were mad at Bob Blandford for the names he called it.
Smith: I think Ford himself didn’t know what Calder was, but he since grew to appreciate it. In fact, Sandy Calder posthumously received the Medal of Freedom from the Ford White House.
DeJonge: I have to admit, I had never heard of Alexander Calder in my life, either. Got to meet him because he would come often to see how the work was progressing. The thing is painted Calder red – they named a special color after him. But it was a tough time – many were opposed to it, many wanted the fountain, but Blandford lost and Stuart Hoffius and this pretty lady succeeded.
Smith: Is Stuart Hoffius still around?
DeJonge: I asked that same question about a week ago and someone told me they think is, but he might have Alzheimer’s.
Smith: One thing to give a backdrop to Ford’s political career – tell us about the time when Grand Rapids had more than one newspaper.
DeJonge: We had the Grand Rapids Herald. It always was second-best to the Press, I think, and this is only my thought. The Herald had a Sunday paper. A lot of the conservatives, many of the Dutch, did not subscribe to the Herald daily, because they had a Sunday paper. The Herald slowly saw their circulation die down until finally Booth Newspapers, owner of the Press, Saganon News, Bay City News, Muskegon, bought them out. We hired some of their best people in the newsroom. Werner Veit became not only the editor, he became publisher of Booth Newspapers. We got the good ones. Bill Bolls, our city editor, he came aboard – nicer guy never lived. Jim Mudge went with Ford for a short time. He was a good guy. We hired John Hormuth. John Hormuth was a fighter pilot in World War II. Wonderful, wonderful person. He was our Sunday editor. The Press was pretty fussy about who they hired. I remember I applied as soon as I came back from Italy and I didn’t have a suit of clothes. You couldn’t buy a suit. In my uniform, I went to see Mr. Woodruff. He said how much education? I said high school. He said you have to be a college grad to work for the Press. He said you go get your college degree, come back and see me. He didn’t think he’d see me. I went to college on the GI Bill, got my degree and I was hired. Not by Mr. Woodruff, but by Mr. Kesterson who was the managing editor. Very English in his appearance – nice, nice guy. And I had some of the best assignments of any reporter. They sent me to the Netherlands for the dedication of the airport at Amsterdam Schiphol – and covered local, state, and national conventions. I say to my wife, “Really I had a great career at the paper.”
Smith: What was the local reaction when he left office and went out to California? Were there people here who were upset about that?
DeJonge: Yeah. They said, here he lived in Grand Rapids most of his life, except in his infancy, and now that he’s been president…and I brought that up to Ford in one of my interviews out there with him and he said, “Well, Maury, I know that some people are upset,” he said, “but I did it for a couple of reasons. Number one, for Betty’s health.” He said, “That’s important.” And he said he liked California. We were walking to his home from his office which was the former home of the dancer, Ginger Rogers, and we stopped. The sun was going down behind the mountains. He said, “ Maury, do you get an idea now why we moved to California?” I said, “Jerry, you don’t have to apologize to me. I understand.” Then we went in the house and Betty was sitting at her desk. She was on the telephone, and she nodded. He then showed me through his house – his weight room and his swimming pool and stuff.
I had given a speech on Ford to the Breakfast Club of Grand Rapids, and I sent a copy of that speech to Ford. He called me and said, “Maury, the next time you are in the desert,” – he always called it the desert – “you and Theta stop in for coffee or for breakfast.” We go there in February. So I called him up after about three days and said, “Jerry, we are in Palm Springs.” He said, “Ah, good. What are you doing tomorrow?” I said, “Waiting for your phone call.” When I got there Bob Barrett, his go-to man, and his secretary Penny Circle, were there. She said, “Maury, Jerry had to go to the hospital to get a shot – he did something to his hip.” So I said, “We’ll wait.” She said, “He’s expected anytime.”
We waited about fifteen minutes. He came in the door and he said, “Maury, I’m so sorry, but I must have rolled over in bed wrong last night and I did something to my hip and we went to the Eisenhower Hospital and they gave me a shot of cortisone.” I said, “Jerry, you don’t have to apologize to me.” So then we went in his office.
He liked to visit with old friends and talk about people he knew and knows yet – in the past. An hour went by and we were just coffee drinking and talking and I said, “Jerry, we’ve been here an hour and taking way too much of your time.” He said, “Maury, I like to meet with old friends.” I said, “But we are leaving now.” But that’s how gracious he was. I can’t say enough about that guy.
Smith: Did you see him at other times in the White House during his presidency? You mentioned the day he became president.
DeJonge: The only time I saw him in the White House was at his inauguration. I called him when I had a suspicion that he was going to be named the vice president. I said, “Jerry, I would like to come to Washington to interview you.” He let the cat out of the bag, really. He said, “Maury, you know in Cedar Springs they always have this Red Flannel Parade.” He said, “I’m going to be in Cedar Springs tomorrow for the parade – come see me there.” And I thought, why is he coming to Cedar Springs, is he going to be the vice president? It was going through my mind – and that’s what happened. Our county treasurer, John Damstra, had a real fancy sports car convertible and John liked to show it off. He was in the parade and he said to Ford – “Ride with me!” Ford said, “No, I’m walking this parade.” He walked the whole parade with me at his side and then we went into, I call it a barn, and we had a chicken dinner together and I got my interview with him.
Smith: And this was the day after he had been nominated for the vice presidency?
DeJonge: I wrote a story on that. Cedar Springs never saw so many people. They were hanging out of the windows. I think I remember that town had 6,100 people – that was its population. In the article I said nobody knows how many people were there – they were in the thousands. Because here was Ford now, no longer their Congressman, now their vice president. He had a red vest on instead of red flannel. And oh, they went nuts.
Smith: But he was unchanged.
DeJonge: Unchanged. Never changed. Like I say, we visited him in Vail.
Smith: Tell me about that.
DeJonge: That’s where Paul did his drawings. Paul Collins. Paul sat up here, up on a stoop and Jerry had the worst looking – oops – I’d better not say it.
Smith: That jacket? That plaid jacket. Tell me about it.
DeJonge: With plaid pants! And they were double-knit and everybody who – I had that picture in here and everybody who I showed that to, they say, “Look at the way he’s dressed!” But anyway, we had a great interview. He was so kind and Susan came walking down the way or she was on a bike. But I’m going to show you that picture. You will really – but he looked putz – Ford always looked putz.
Smith: Where did he get his fashion sense? Not from Betty.
DeJonge: No – he had a – here is Bill Simon – remember him?
DeJonge: He came to Grand Rapids. He and I went swimming together at the convention. Okay – here it is.
Smith: The proverbial picture worth ten thousand words. Now, that couldn’t have been Betty’s fashion sense.
DeJonge: No, he used a local tailor whose office was on Ottawa and Lyon and he was a well-known tailor in Grand Rapids. But Jerry had his own style and I remember he made a sport coat for him – it was terrible, but Jerry liked it so he made it. One of our photographers, Jay Abbott and I, we snuck a note in the inside pocket of his new sport coat.
Smith: What did the note say?
DeJonge: Something about the coat – I don’t remember.
Smith: Not complimentary.
DeJonge: No and he answered, jokingly. I could never make him mad. Very few people could.
Smith: How much of that was the 70’s and how much of that was Jerry Ford’s sense of fashion. Because, let’s face it, people who look back now, we’re all embarrassed at what people wore in the 70’s.
DeJonge: Oh, I am, too, the stuff I remember.
Smith: Leisure suits.
DeJonge: And everything was double-knit because it didn’t wrinkle and they were homely, ugly stuff. I had a pair of black and white shoes – oh terrible – oh everyone dressed terribly back then. Jerry didn’t have a corner on poor dress.
Smith: One senses Mrs. Ford kind of looked out for him in later years. “You’re not going to wear that suit.”
DeJonge: I’m sure, because when they dedicated this place, Bill Gill, who was the news director for WOTV and myself were appointed the people to welcome the visiting journalists from all over – Japan, China, Germany. We had to credential every one of them. It was a big, big job. We did it and we got compliments from Ford on it. The picture that was taken, the Prime Minister of Canada, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Sr., down the line, beautiful picture. I’ve saved that.
Smith: Is Bill Gill still around?
DeJonge: I saw Bill about a year ago. One of the guys from our paper died and I went to the funeral chapel and saw Bill for the first time in many years. Bill and I were always close. We were competitors in a way, but newspapers can’t compete with television, which can give you instant news, but we can do a better job. You can go back tomorrow and read it again. You can’t do that with television or radio. Still, newspapers are losing readers – even the Times.
I’ve got to tell this, when Ford was appointed vice president there came the media – New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and all of them were told by Republican headquarters, “Go see Maury.” And so there they’d come to the Press. I’d treat them to coffee on the third floor. They were all looking for junk – all looking for the worst thing they could find on Jerry Ford. I’ll never forget the guy from CBS, I can’t remember his name – he’s no longer with them, his parting words to me were, “This guy couldn’t have been an Eagle Scout all his life.” I said to him, “If you find anything on Jerry Ford, you come back and tell me.” And he walked out.
They all left empty-handed – every one of them. Nobody found a thing. Even the FBI was in here and they hid in the closet when I walked into Republican headquarters, as I did routinely, just to make myself known and available. The secretary said, “Oh here comes Maury, don’t let him see you.” The FBI hid in the closet. I found that out from her later. But they all had garbage on their mind. Never found it.
Smith: The kids, of course, didn’t grow up here – this wasn’t their home. In fact, I think it means more to them now when they come back. Obviously there is a special kind of bond.
DeJonge: Yeah, we really didn’t know the kids. I remember Pete Secchia had a suite at the Kansas City convention – Pete and I are friends. We fight, but we’re friends. He had arranged for an interview in his suite with Jack Ford and Tony Orlando. He said, be there at 6:30. I said, I’ll be there. I had first gone to this Nelson Rockefeller reception, went to Pete’s suite, got there at exactly twenty-five after and had my interviews with Jack Ford and Tony Orlando separately, in the bedroom. That night, I got back from the convention and Pete’s waiting at the entrance to the hotel – Hallmark Hotel I guess – and it’s around eleven thirty at night. He said to me, “You embarrassed me today.” I said, “I embarrassed you? How’s that?” He said, “I told you to be in my suite at six o’clock.” I said, “Peter, you said six-thirty and I was there and I got my interviews.” He said, “I said six.”
And a crowd started to gather, we’re arguing now. I said, “Peter, I’m not going to argue with you out here with all these people around, but I’m looking you up tomorrow.” The next morning I thought he’d be at the pool – he had a broken leg at the time and he was in the wheelchair and had his own private nurse – and I thought he’d be sitting at the pool. I had my bathing suit on and Joanie was there. I said, “Joanie, where’s Peter?” She said, “Maury, he’s sorry.” I said, “I want Peter to tell me he is sorry.” She said, “No, let’s go swimming.” So the two of us went in the pool. By this time my temper is back down and Peter and I stayed friends. When he was ambassador he wanted me to come to Italy, but I didn’t have time. Good guy.
Smith: Tell me about this place and the impact that it made on the city. When it was decided that there was going to be a Ford museum, I guess he was offered several sites, including some on the outskirts of town. But the decision was made to put it here and presumably that was one of the catalysts, along with the hotel obviously, and all that that began the turnaround.
DeJonge: Well, you know, in one of the interviews, I broke the story that Ford and Betty were going to be buried here. I said, “You’re coming back to Grand Rapids to be buried?” and he said yes. And he said it will be just north of the museum. And it happened. I haven’t seen it yet. I brought my camera – I said to Theta, my wife, “I’m going to try to take a picture of that, I still feel bad.”
Smith: Do you remember the last time you saw him or spoke to him?
DeJonge: Let’s see, it was January, ’79. You mentioned Mike Lloyd. Mike and I are not friends. I had called Ford and I said, “Jerry, sometime, if it’s okay with you, I would like to do an interview asking you every question I can think of.” He said, “Maury, it will happen and I’ll call you.” That was January of ’79, he said, come to my office and we’ll have that interview. At that time he said the only other paper I’m doing this for is the New York Times. So I had my interview and I put it on tape and later Mike met with Jerry in Chicago and he did an interview. Mike chose to run his interview and not mine. He mentioned in his first of a series of two or three, that it started with Maury DeJonge in January of ’79. That’s it.
I said to Mike, at least give me credit for having one of the first interviews and he did. Then Grand Rapids Magazine called me and they said Maury, we understand that you have a copy of that tape. I said, “You bet.” They said, “We would like to run that story.” I said, “Well, before I’ll say yes, I want to check with Mike Lloyd to see if he will approve.” I called Mike and he said, “Absolutely not. That’s Press property. You were employed by the Press when you made the tape. We have it in our safe, and I chose to run my interview.” I said, “Well, Mike I have a copy.” And so I got a letter from a New York lawyer, ordering me to turn that tape over to the Press immediately, and I said three words. I had Roger Boor as my lawyer, and Roger said, “Don’t let them have that.”
That’s a keepsake – I treasure that thing. I was so careful with it, not even my wife heard it. I transcribed it myself, so nobody has ever seen or heard that tape except me. But I got it and I will keep it. I suppose Mike’s got a point, but he ordered the chief editorial writer, who also edits the public policy column – he says, accept no more letters from Maury DeJonge. So I called – that was at the time – it was the guy who was in the accident with Pete and Joanie – such a nice guy. I said, “Have you gotten the word?” and he says, “Yeah, Maury, I hate to tell you, but Mike has said, ‘No more letters from Maury’.” To me that is very small because I had many people who would read my letters on different subjects.
Smith: Were you surprised by the response – the funeral? Obviously, it was the biggest event in Grand Rapids history.
DeJonge: I was so surprised. I knew it would be big, I never saw such a crowd. They were across the bridge. They were south. I couldn’t believe it and anybody’s estimate on crowd would strictly be a guess. I think sixty-seventy thousand, what do I know? I never saw a crowd like that.
Jack Kennedy, when he came to town, he was a senator at that time, running for president. It was huge crowd in Campau Square. I rode in the motorcade back to Nelson and Kalamazoo Avenue where his train was waiting. We were in the second car. Kennedy got out of his car and I walked with him. I walked with him and I said, “Senator, would you believe this is a Republican town?” He said, “Not today, it isn’t.” I sent him a couple of pictures that our photographer took. And he sent me a handwritten note thanking me. I kept that, too.
They were lined up all down Division Avenue. When they got to Catholic Central High School, the mob blocked the street. So we had to get out, climbed on the roof of the car, said a few words, back in the car to Burton, Burton to Nelson, Nelson to the railroad station.
Then Nixon came to town. I was traveling with Al Bentley, who was a Congressman who was running for the Senate against Pat McNamara. He was a multi-millionaire, about two hundred million, original GM stock – that way. He was the guy that got shot in the Chamber by that Puerto Rican – remember that? It goes way back. And he used that suit, with the bullet hole in it in his campaign, which I thought was so corny. I lived with him for three weeks in his home in Owosso and we traveled all over by his airplane as he made his stops. He threw a big party in Detroit about two days before the election for a different nationalities. A big dinner, and all, and there was maybe two or three thousand people at Cobo Hall. Bentley was caught up in that mob and he got up there and he sounded like Jesus. He said, “Lo, I will be with you always.” And I thought, oh no. So we went back to his house – we flew back to Owosso. He said, “Maury, do you think I’m going to win?” I said, “No, Al. You’re going to lose.” McNamara cleaned his clock.
Smith: Owosso was also the home of Thomas E. Dewey.
DeJonge: Right across the street – slightly at an angle to the left was – and he pointed it out to me. I’ll never forget – I slept at his home – he had carpeting about that thick. I’d go home and my carpeting was about like this. He had the money and he was quite certain he was going to be elected to the Senate. But he lost big.
Remember T. John Lesinski? He was a lieutenant governor under Williams. T. John, in Hamtramck, was debating Al Bentley. You know what Hamtramck is like – all Democrats. Bentley made a comment, kidding T. John about his weight. When it was all over T. John walked up to Bentley and said, “I could have knocked you out making fun of my weight.” Oh he was livid, he was so mad. And Bentley said, “I was just kidding, John. I was just kidding.” He didn’t take it as kidding.
Smith: Tell me, was George Romney in over his head as a presidential candidate?
DeJonge: I wish he would have been elected – nominated and elected. This guy was a great governor in the state of Michigan. I didn’t cover him much, but he spoke at Calvin College one night that I covered and he used a couple damns and hells in his speech. I thought, that’s not going to go over very big with this Calvin College crowd, but he was such a success with American Motors. He was talking about gas guzzling dinosaurs way ahead of his time and he was right. When he came back from, Vietnam or Korea, I can’t remember, he said we were brainwashed, and he was right! We were brainwashed by Lyndon Johnson – that it was a war we were winning. They used that against George Romney to this day and it is false. He was right.
Bud Vestal covered George Romney when I was covering Al Bentley for all the Booth papers. He ran Bud Vestal’s legs off. When the three weeks were over, I called Vestal and I said, boy, I was tired, Bud. He said, “Did you hear what happened to me?” I said, “No.” He said when it was all over, “I went home laid on the davenport and I passed out. I fell on the floor. I had to take a week off.” He said, “Romney just drove me crazy.” That’s the kind of guy he was. When he played golf, he jogged. He didn’t walk, he jogged. That doesn’t make him president, but I still think he would have been a good one.
Smith: Tell, us, sort of wrapping up, if you were describing Ford to a generation who never knew him, or to people who thought they knew him – something they didn’t know about Ford – something they ought to know about him – something that goes to the heart of who he was.
DeJonge: Boy, that is so tough without my fingers on a computer, but number one: intelligence; number two: right up there with number one, so trustworthy, so humble, so competent in everything. Well you know what he inherited from – good grief, we had interest rates going nuts, our inflation was horrible, just terrible and Ford was bringing that down in that short period of time. I think he would have been a total success and achieved great things had he been elected. But, no, it’s so tough to describe this guy – it’s something you have to feel.
Smith: Television wasn’t his friend, was it? He wasn’t a television president.
DeJonge: No. No way. He started it and it narrowed it considerably, but he was like what – fourteen, eighteen points behind this peanut farmer? I didn’t think – I interviewed Carter’s son and he told me his dad announced at a Thanksgiving dinner I’m going to run for president and I’m going to win. And he did.
Smith: And wasn’t it extraordinary – to bring this story full circle – I remember at the church – the funeral – when I was up there, I think I was in a fog – you don’t really notice things, but I read afterwards that Roslyn Carter was weeping in her pew. Who would have predicted in 1976 that’s how the story would end.
DeJonge: I know. The guy next door –
DeJonge: He spent ten minutes apologizing to me because I was not invited. But I hold no grudge against that – I said, “Marty, forget it.” But tell me this, I heard that after, or during the funeral, an eagle flew over. Is that true?
Smith: I’ve heard that, too. I don’t know. I can’t tell you that, but I’ve heard that as well.
DeJonge: And the day was unbelievably beautiful – the sun was out – not a cloud in the sky – and if that’s a true story, it ought to be told. Someone who was there said, and I thought they said it was on television. I don’t know. But that would be a godsend if that was true – because that’s where that guy is.
Smith: Thank you.
DeJonge: You’re welcome.
Smith: This is great – and fun.