Seymour Padnos was a longtime friend of President Gerald R. Ford. Padnos serves as Chairman of the Louis Padnos Iron and Metal Co. He established the Esther and Seymour Padnos Foundation, which supports a number of organizations, including Grand Valley State University. The Padnos Hall of Science and the Padnos College of Engineering and Science at GVSU are named for him. He is a Trustee of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.
Seymour Padnos was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on August 5, 2008 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: You were a minority.
Padnos: Yes. A very distinct minority. And it wasn’t easy because I never really felt fully accepted in the community of activity. In other words, we didn’t go to church, I didn’t belong to CE, I didn’t go to catechism, you know, where the other kids went. And, in spite of the welcome that I always received, there wasn’t any feeling of not being equal.
Smith: Let’s go way back to the beginning. Have you always lived in west Michigan?
Smith: In Holland?
Padnos: Actually, my mother was from Grand Rapids and chose to have me born in Grand Rapids, but the residence was in Holland. She chose Grand Rapids because she didn’t like the looks of the Holland hospital.
Smith: Tell me, because this is obviously very much a part of our effort to paint in the background of Gerald Ford’s west Michigan. How dominant, shall we say, culturally and otherwise, was the Calvinist tradition in west Michigan?
Padnos: I don’t know about necessarily Calvinist. I guess you’d have to include Reform movement in with the Calvinist movement, but in my lifetime there was a distinction between what we call the auf skeiden (?), which were the Christian reform movement or the skeiden (?), which were the more liberal Reform movement of which Hope College was a part as differentiated from Calvin College.
There’s a slightly different mentality of acceptance, and to the degree that there’s the very traditional ultra conservatives who pull their shades down in their stores on Sunday, there was no theater, there was no drug store. You couldn’t buy a Sunday paper. You had to go to a more distant location if you wanted a Sunday paper. That sort of thing. So, it was a rather – I’m not saying Grand Rapids was that, but that was my experience in Holland. I think Grand Rapids was ___________ for the fact that the furniture industry brought in a lot of other ethnic peoples, particularly west side Polish peoples. I think the Bissell Carpet Company brought in a lot of hog-tying, bristle-tying people, many of whom were Jewish – brought an immigrant community into Grand Rapids. They gave it a more dynamic cultural exposure.
Smith: That’s fascinating because one of the things we really want to do is try to get a sense of the Grand Rapids that produced Ford. If someone who’d never been to west Michigan before were coming here and they said, “What’s this about the Dutch?”
Padnos: Well, it was a pretty closed society in that cousins, everyone, seemed to be related. It wasn’t that they were intermarried, but they were all from a unique area in the Netherlands, a unique area of the Netherlands that was cloistered and rather controlling and as an outsider you didn’t always… It’s not the nature of the Dutch people to not be hospitable, but hospitality and friendliness are a couple different things.
Smith: Yeah, sort of the difference between courtesy and true acceptance.
Padnos: Yes. My father, for instance, in Holland had no affiliations other than the fact that he was a Legionnaire from World War I and a Mason and those were his two social activities. Obviously he wasn’t comfortable going to church although oftentimes I went to church with neighbors and things like that, but it was not… You were welcome, but not accepted.
Smith: Was there a synagogue anywhere around?
Padnos: Grand Rapids.
Smith: In Grand Rapids?
Padnos: Yeah. My father was a member of the Grand Rapids synagogue, but in those days, to drive 25 miles from Holland to Grand Rapids was a chore. He was not a regular attendant. Maybe that has something to do with my fact that I went to Hope College, in that we weren’t particularly religious people. While my father came from orthodox origin, he wasn’t a religiously practicing Jew. He worked on Sabbath because of necessity. So as a consequence, when I chose to go to Hope College, it was no great event in our life.
Smith: Now, you clearly from a very early age had some interest in politics.
Padnos: Well, that’s true. When I was in high school, I was selected by the American Legion to go to Wolverine Boys State, which was an introduction to politics and to the Detroit School of Politics, which was pretty rough. And I learned how the machine operated.
Smith: In that case, a Democratic machine.
Padnos: Yes, definitely and how they controlled the way things were done. Subsequently, when I went to Hope, I had a political science/history prof by the name of Bruce Raymond who was an activist in the Republican Party. In those days, if you wanted to be a delegate to the Republican Party convention, all you had to do was announce yourself and Bruce Raymond made it possible. Early on, I was a delegate to the Republican Party convention while in college and I used to be the ferry for a number of local Republicans. I drove the car to the conventions in Detroit.
Smith: Let me ask you about one of those because you have talked about a Democratic machine. Legendarily, there was a Republican machine here.
Padnos: Oh definitely.
Smith: Tell us about Frank McKay and that organization.
Padnos: Well, you know, what I know about Frank McKay is hearsay. I know that Frank, I think his name was McCloskey(?) or something like that, and he was a machine politician from the old school. On this side of the state, you wasted your efforts if you were a Democrat, so he pretty much controlled Republican politics. And if you wanted a liquor license or anything like that, you went to see Frank McKay and bought insurance from his company and that’s the way the system operated.
Smith: He had, in effect, a hammerlock on the party.
Padnos: Oh, yes, he did. And Mayor Welsh and people like that were a product of that system. As I understand, Jerry Ford’s dad was a chairman of the Republican Party here in Grand Rapids and he had ancillary groups over in Holland, men whom I got to know. One man in particular was the president of the Holland-Racine Shoe Company who was a political activist and his name was…oh shoot, age gives me a problem there. And one of his associates was Henry Marntz who was also one of my mentors; who was the president of the First National Bank in Holland. Karel Andriessen was the name of the man at the shoe company. Between Karel Andriessen and Henry Marntz, they mentored me in the Republican Party and introduced me to Jerry Ford.
Smith: As I understand it, President Ford’s father was part of a sort of rebellious group of Republicans who were…
Padnos: Obviously must have been.
Smith: …were kind of tired of the McKay…
Padnos: Fight the system.
Smith: Now, that’s interesting. Did you know his father at all?
Padnos: No, I did not. No, that’s where I wondered where my participation… Because Jerry Ford and I were never personal friends. We were good acquaintances. He never ever failed to recognize me whether it be in a large group or whatever, he’d single me out and say “Hello” and that sort of thing, which I treasured. But when he was campaigning…
Smith: Set the scene: In ’48, obviously, he comes back from the war and decides, at some point, he’s going to run for Congress. I’m wondering, that couldn’t have been an overnight decision.
Padnos: You’ve got to know that my brother and I had come out of the service. He appealed to us as a bright, young guy who was going to change things and we’d talk about change and we were trying to change things. We were opposed to the system.
Smith: Including the machine.
Padnos: To the machine, yes. So, we were going to disrupt the machine politics and when Jerry came to western Michigan, he came as an acquaintance of Karel Andriessen and Henry Marntz who introduced us to Jerry, my brother Stuart and I.
Smith: What was he like?
Padnos: Just a nice young guy. A plain, ordinary person that you didn’t feel awkward at all about being with. And so, we took it upon ourselves to introduce Ford to the people whom we knew in the Junior Chamber and places like that where we thought it might make a difference.
Smith: Now, by this point, he was openly running against Jonkman.
Padnos: Well, Jonkman was the incumbent.
Padnos: If you’re going to run for Congress, you’re going to run against the incumbent and Jonkman, who I only casually met, struck me as being one of the old school kind of politicians that didn’t appeal to young people.
Smith: It’s interesting. In some ways, that first race is almost a generational contest as much as anything else.
Padnos: Well, very much so. And he represented the conservative, Dutch lineage that – I don’t know that we found objectionable, but that represented the old school. Here we were, young guys and looking for a new fresh breath of air and so he appealed to us. Jerry Ford appealed to us. And so, young people, aggressive young people, we got behind it and tried to do whatever we could to motivate.
Smith: And clearly there was a significant issue in that campaign that divided, in addition to generational differences…
Padnos: In our scenario, did I mention Arthur Vandenberg? Arthur Vandenberg had chosen to leave isolationism and to become international in his aspects. That appealed to us. We were, if you want to reflect back, free traders, that sort of thing. We lived in the international community of existence. And, to the isolationists, that was an anathema.
Smith: How provincial were they in terms of – not looking at the world, the Marshall Plan, and all of these post-war issues?
Padnos: They weren’t capable of conceptualizing that. It was contrary to everything that they believed in. I mean really believed in. It wasn’t just a – I don’t know how to identify it, I’m at a loss for words, really. But it was a different ideology.
Smith: And a different life experience.
Padnos: Yeah, right. Exactly. It was not within their life experience.
Smith: Whereas you and a whole generation of…
Padnos: Well, my brother Stuart had been to Europe and had been prisoner of war and had experienced a lot of things that without that, you couldn’t possibly understand. I think that our Jewish origin gave us a universalism that didn’t exist in the conservative Protestant ideology. Ford just represented a whole – he captured the Vandenberg spirit, he represented the idea of the Marshall Plan, the rebuilding of Europe, the necessity for all of that.
Smith: It must have been a time, particularly for all you young guys – you’d gone off, you’d seen the world. You’d seen the world at its worst. You’d won. You defeated the most evil enemy imaginable, and you must’ve come back and thought, “We can start the world over again”.
Padnos: Well, my brother’s perspective was broader than mine. I really didn’t understand the Holocaust until after it was revealed. The press in the United States did not report what really had been transpiring until much later when reporters came back. So, even as a Jew, I remember my father having sent packages, my father still had relatives in Russia, he would send care packages to Russia and that sort of thing, but I don’t think he himself knew what had been happening. But I think we had a broader perspective of the world than cloistered community people here in western Michigan.
Smith: And, let’s face it. There were a lot of people who were isolationists before the war who were isolationists after the war.
Smith: And, presumably, Jonkman represented that status quo.
Padnos: And so we were concerned to make that change. We challenged voters. We did vote counts. We did lots of things including putting signs on our trucks to express our position, which I have to say was not all that well received in the community.
Smith: Tell me about that.
Padnos: As a matter of fact, the mayor of our community who was a nice guy, but pretty conservative in his view, after all, he was elected mayor of Holland, called my father to say, “You have to understand the consequences of all this. If these kids lose, you may have some consequences to pay.” My father was permissive enough to let us do our thing.
Smith: That’s fascinating. And that was beyond the machine.
Smith: That was just the local culture feeling in some ways threatened by what you represented.
Padnos: I don’t think the machine ever threatened us. We were too small and too insignificant. And the thought of beating Bartel Jonkman, a machine operative, was unthinkable.
Smith: What led Ford to think that he could do that, because clearly he was underdog?
Padnos: Derring do. I think that his father whetted his appetite and obviously encouraged him. Gave him reason to believe that it was possible. You know, it’s always the impossible that you – oftentimes, you accomplish the impossible.
Smith: Plus, I imagine, the other thing he got I think from both of his folks, certainly, was that work ethic. I mean, he must’ve out campaigned.
Padnos: What you have to understand is that he was somewhat of an underdog, too. They were not part of the elite. They weren’t people of wealth. He had to achieve what he achieved by his own derring do, you know. His activity in the Boy Scouts of America was an achievement and he was an achiever. You don’t become a varsity football player at South High School by not having been an achiever. And I didn’t know him then, but I enjoyed knowing about it in knowing of him.
Smith: Let me ask you something, and I realize it’s speculative, but this came up yesterday and it was very interesting. It goes again to this whole notion of the culture that he was, in some ways wooing, but at the same time challenging. The whole sequence of events surrounding his marriage to Betty. It’s always been said that…
Padnos: My wife and I were married at just about the same time. As a matter of fact, in ’48, amidst of all of this campaigning and so forth, my wife went with me prior to our being married to the state convention in Detroit. It was all part of growing up, I guess.
Smith: It’s interesting because, over the years, there’s been several sorts of explanations, and let me sort of outline what I think is the truth. He knew he wanted to marry her and he told her early in 1948 that he wanted to get married, but he couldn’t tell her when and he couldn’t tell her why he couldn’t tell her. Now, two explanations have been offered for this. One was, he wanted to take Jonkman by surprise, which he did to some degree, I guess. But the other, interestingly, which tells you a lot more about the culture, was of course, she was a divorcee and there was some question as to the political fallout if their engagement, let alone marriage, had been announced before the Republican primary. Does that, in what you know of the culture…?
Padnos: I never knew that she had been prior married, so it really didn’t matter to me. Nor do I recall it’s ever having a matter of subject of discussion.
Smith: From what you know of the prevailing culture, had it been known generally, do you think it would have…?
Padnos: Oh, I think it might have. Yeah, I do. Just as it is today, if you’re divorced in a presidential campaign, it’s not a plus. Is that not true?
Smith: Yeah, although I think it’s probably much less so. It’s certainly an issue.
Padnos: It’s much more acceptable, but in my time, you have to remember, as I recall, Holland, there was one major realty company as opposed to now when there’s 15 or 20 or more. If anyone sold their house, everybody in town knew about it and if a house came up for sale, certainly everybody knew about it. People just didn’t move around. I grew up in a Depression culture where kids actually went to CCC camp because their parents couldn’t feed them. So having grown up through the ‘30s, it was a very, very conservative atmosphere. There was no such thing as – there were old people’s homes, I remember there was a county poor farm, but generally speaking, if a couple, the parents, were in need, they lived with their children. Does that have any bearing?
Smith: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Tell me about the district itself. I mean, what communities – I assume Grand Rapids dominated the district.
Padnos: Well, obviously, and Zeeland, of course was a major player because that’s where Bartel Jonkman lived. So, when you ran against him, you ran against Zeeland as well. And you had to convince sufficient enough people in Holland. However, when the votes were counted, we won in Zeeland as well.
Smith: Really. So what were some of the major population centers of the district? Grand Rapids, presumably, was by far the largest.
Padnos: There were any number of little Dutch communities, satellite communities, in between Holland and Zeeland, Burkelouw(?) and Vriesland and all of these centers of Dutch culture.
Smith: Rural? Small towns?
Padnos: Very rural. All rural.
Smith: Which, presumably, would be thought to favor Jonkman?
Padnos: Oh, thought to favor, yes, but you’ve got to remember that I was part of a group of returning veterans and those were the guys that, when I went to the American Legion, I talked about Ford. In those days, the young veteran was a member of the American Legion and the VFW. My brother was a member of the VFW. These guys were activists, they were going to make some changes.
Smith: That’s fascinating. The McKay machine, was it district wide or was it basically Grand Rapids or…?
Padnos: Well, they were out of touch. As far as I know, it was Grand Rapids centered.
Smith: Okay. You say it was out of touch.
Padnos: Well, you know, here we are a bunch of veterans, many of whom had seen the world and this was contrary to their current orientation. So, I think that it was a veteran push as much as anything.
Smith: Do you know the story about the Quonset hut?
Padnos: Oh sure.
Smith: Tell the story about the Quonset hut.
Padnos: I don’t know the story intimately, I just know it was Ford’s headquarters and it was symbolic of the returning veterans.
Smith: But, supposedly, McKay gave orders to have it removed?
Padnos: Oh, I don’t know anything about that.
Padnos: You have to understand that Holland is 25, 30 miles removed from Grand Rapids. Communications were not all that… We had the Grand Rapids Press and the Grand Rapids Herald to depend upon for our sources of information.
Smith: And where were they in this contest?
Padnos: Well, Grand Rapids Press was Vandenberg territory and I suspect that he had a great deal of influence on where they stood. I don’t know this for fact, but I have every reason to believe that Vandenberg was a Ford supporter because they shared common interests. I can’t speak intimately of that.
Smith: Was there any resentment felt by these outlying communities towards Grand Rapids? Was it sort of us against them?
Padnos: Again, I cannot speak with any degree of authority. When you lived in Holland, you were pretty isolated.
Smith: Hmm. That’s interesting.
Padnos: I went to school with kids who never rode on a train, who never left Holland. You know, my parents, we had relatives in Chicago. We’d be back and forth and that sort of thing. It was no great event to have left Holland. But if you read the Holland City News or the Holland Evening Sentinel, there used to be articles of the people, you know, “Jenny So-and-so went to Grand Rapids”, you know, those would be news articles. So, it was a completely different culture.
Smith: Bit of a cocoon.
Padnos: Yes, very much so.
Smith: How did Ford campaign?
Padnos: You know, if my father made a trip to Chicago, it was a news article.
Smith: That tells you a lot. Tell me about Ford the campaigner in those days.
Padnos: Well, again, my intimacy was such that my only exposure was that Ford came to western Michigan and we took him around to meet people. I can’t recall his making speeches. It was more or less conversation.
Smith: But he must have clicked one on one.
Padnos: Well, if you introduced him to a veteran, he was a veteran. He was one of us.
Padnos: I never saw him appear in uniform.
Smith: Really. That’s interesting. Did you ever discuss religion at any time?
Padnos: Never. Never.
Smith: Because I’ll tell you this story. There’s a wonderful story that I found out actually from a guy named Don Penny who worked in the White House for awhile, he was kind of a consultant on speeches and communication and all that sort of thing. Anyway, he and Mrs. Ford sort of conspired to sort of dress up the president’s wardrobe. So Don got a tailor, really first class tailor from Georgetown, who’s Jewish. His first name was Saul and said he had to come over. So Saul’s pretty nervous about going to the White House and meeting the president and that sort of thing. Anyway, it’s a Saturday afternoon and the president’s sitting upstairs and he’s watching college football. And Don said, “Mr. President?” And he said, “What it is, Don?” And he said, “There’s this tailor here now.” He said, “Well, we can do it later.” And he said, “Well, you know…” And, anyway,…
Padnos: “Don’t interfere with my football game!”
Smith: Yeah, he’s watching football, you know! And, anyway, one thing led to another and he wasn’t going to be discourteous so he went into another room to be measured and everything else by this guy. Quite a bit of time goes by and Don hears these voices, these low, sort of confidential tone of voice and he sort of looks around and the president’s got his hand on this guy’s shoulder and it’s almost like he’s consoling him. So once they are out of there, he was dying of curiosity, “What happened?” The president was asking Saul about his background and the fact came right away that his family – part of his family, not all of his family – had survived the Holocaust. And the president said on his own, “Well, you know, Saul, you’re probably one of the best Americans because you know what it means to be an American,” which was just the perfect thing to say. It was obviously from the heart. It wasn’t for public effect, and you often wished that the public could’ve seen that sensitivity of Ford.
Smith: Clearly, and I assume he got this from his folks, this was a man without a prejudice bone in his body on everything.
Padnos: You know, in my recollection, Ford didn’t go out of his way to make Jewish friends, but he had Jewish friends. There was a man in Grand Rapids by the name of Hy Bylan who was…
Smith: What was the last name?
Padnos: Bylan, B-Y-L-A-N, who was a conspicuous Ford supporter and, in actuality, he was the Strohs Brewing distributor. But I know that he made great efforts in Ford’s behalf. And I believe he’d been invited to the White House. In my recollection, I never saw it or was given an invitation to the White House, other than subsequently at Ford’s birthday, but I know that he lays great store in that relationship.
Smith: Were you surprised when he won the primary?
Padnos: I was elated. You know, it was an accomplishment. It was a pleasant surprise and I had no idea what the ultimate consequences of that might be. No conception of that whatsoever. He was just reelected, reelected, reelected, because he’d done such a great job.
Smith: Tell me about that because I used to talk to him about it and he thought two of the things that really damaged Congress in later years. He thought having a bigger staff was a bad thing and raising money was a terrible thing. Spending money was, you know, he didn’t like to do that.
Padnos: Well, he came from a conservative background. We were Depression kids. I don’t think that people today can have any idea of the concept of what it meant to see your father come home with a few bucks.
Smith: Of course, they lost their house. And he sold his blood to put himself through the University of Michigan.
Tell me what kind of congressman he was.
Padnos: Well, my files are full of thank you letters. He was a very thoughtful man, a very appreciative man. He demonstrated his appreciation by written expression. I can’t recall having ever asked him for much personally that he didn’t respond to. I’d wanted some things for my family to identify with President Ford and Penny always responded in magnanimous fashion, more than one might have expected, signed letters, signed all kinds of things.
Smith: I often thought, once a congressman, always a congressman.
Padnos: I guess.
Smith: He had a very good reputation for constituent service.
Padnos: I keep perpetual files and it’s incredible the numbers of envelopes that I have with his signature on it thanking me for this or that or the next thing.
Smith: And he came home to the district all the time.
Padnos: Oh yes, he did. Often. Often. Often. Often. And he was available for any number of things. This photograph that I have here, any kind of event that he could be a contributor to, he was there.
Smith: And it’s interesting because it was a safe district.
Padnos: Oh, he didn’t have to worry. As a matter of fact, his successor rode his coattails, didn’t have to worry until he kind of lost track of his constituency.
Smith: And that was…?
Padnos: Guy Vander Jagt.
Smith: Oh, yes. Yeah, I heard the president talk about it.
Padnos: Actually, Richard – there was an interim period – Richard…
Smith: …Vander Veen.
Padnos: Vander Veen.
Smith: Who had run against Ford.
Padnos: Who had run against him.
Smith: But in the Watergate year,…
Padnos: That was the consequence of that.
Smith: …the first Democrat…
Padnos: That’s right. And then, of course, Vander Jagt was a speaker of quite substantial repute and Hope College and I carried his campaign and carried his brief, so to speak, and subsequently was very able, with not too much difficulty. However, Vander Jaft ran against 5 or 6 other candidates and, again, that didn’t put you in good stead with other people, but we were successful in winning the campaign. But, again, I don’t like to relive that situation.
Smith: Well, it’s funny because, my sense from what the president said, and he was circumspect, but he looked at Guy and he thought he was symptomatic of a larger thing, that he’d sort of gone Washington and didn’t get home as much as he used to.
Padnos: Exactly! Exactly. And got caught up in the national campaigns supporting other Republican candidates outside of his district to the degree that he didn’t tend his flock.
Smith: That’s fascinating because here’s Ford, who of course for the last nine years was Minority Leader of the House, and clearly was traveling all over the country and yet still managed to pay attention to…
Padnos: Well, yes, he did, but he took care of his home base.
Smith: And always did.
Padnos: And he had such a reputation that it could cover a lot of failures if there were failures.
Smith: He had a lot of Democratic support, too?
Padnos: Well, you know, it was hopeless to run against him. I mean, you’re just wasting your time.
Smith: Let me ask you. This is a large, maybe philosophical question, but…
Padnos: This was a Republican district, you know that.
Smith: Sure. But, you know, it’s interesting because he was a conservative, fiscally a conservative. He always said socially, he was a moderate to liberal and a fervent internationalist.
Padnos: I like to think of myself in like stead. I am a liberal socially. I am a Republican… I condemn myself by saying I really voted my pocketbook.
Smith: But that’s perfectly understandable. I think he was fiscally very conservative. I think he had a healthy skepticism about what government alone could to do improve people’s lives. Not that it didn’t have good intentions, but that sometimes good intentions produce not so good results, all of that. And yet, clearly on issues like civil rights, he believed that government had to ensure equal opportunity and in his later years, he was pro-choice. A number of things that actually left him, in many ways, stranded.
Padnos: I was with him all the way.
Smith: But this is what’s fascinating because, in some ways, conservatism changed during the period of his public life. When you ran in 1948 as a conservative…
Padnos: Conservatism is fiscal, not social.
Smith: Right. In fact, the whole range of social issues weren’t even on the agenda in part because, tell me if I’m wrong, his generation thought those were such private matters.
Padnos: You took care of your own.
Smith: But also there was this kind of very decent, Midwest reticence. You didn’t talk about things like abortion, let alone debate them and legislate them.
Padnos: Well, I have to tell you that we lived a naïve life in western Michigan. I had no idea what a lesbian was. It just wasn’t part of our vocabulary. It was never a subject of discussion. It was earth shattering when I went to New York and saw life as it really was. That’s the kind of background that we had here.
Smith: That, in a nutshell, says as much about west Michigan, because remember, in his later years, he is still the only American president ever to sign a petition for gay rights. And you can imagine what the right wing thought, I mean, the social conservatives thought. And, oh sure, okay, I think Betty was an influence.
Padnos: We didn’t have that exposure. If you haven’t been exposed, how do you know? Homosexuality was never a discussion. I know that, among my friends, there were people who were slightly different from me, but they were never singled out. They were just part of the gang.
Smith: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting, because you also sense this ability when he gets to Washington and particularly as he rose through the ranks, he’s well aware of the foibles, of the shortcomings, and the inadequacies of his colleagues and he has his own, very strict personal moral code, and yet he doesn’t appear to be judging…
Padnos: Well, I think that part of the Dutch influence was to be charitable to other people’s perspective although very protective of one’s own being.
Smith: Well put.
Padnos: I don’t know if I’m saying…
Smith: Oh yeah, this is exactly what we want. Seymour, this is exactly what we need.
I want to hurry here, because, well, toward the end, as I know you were at all the meetings of the Foundation and would have that contact with him and obviously from time to time when he came back, you saw him. Was that fairly frequent?
Padnos: Whenever he was in the community, I tried to make it a point to be there and he always made me feel comfortable. I recall at one of our last meetings, not last meetings, but in one of the meetings, he made a point of singling me out and introducing me to some of the people whom I might not otherwise have known and always identified me as one of his oldest friends. Well, to be one of the President of the United States’ oldest friends is a pretty unique identity. And I enjoyed that.
Smith: You mentioned the White House dinner. Did you go to the 90th birthday dinner? What do you remember of that?
Padnos: What I remember of that was going to the White House and walking down the corridor and making a wrong turn and getting on an elevator with Happy Rockefeller and her, then, friend and ending up on the third floor which was not ever intended to be. It became obvious I should be on the second floor rather. My wife and I were so honored that we were maybe overwhelmed a little bit.
Padnos: And I remember the dinner and sitting in the East Room immediately next to the president’s table. I remember the entertainment, particularly the army choir and the bass singer.
Smith: Alvie Powell. Sergeant Alvie Powell.
Padnos: Yes, did an incredible presentation solo. Just to have been there, to be part of that was memorable.
Smith: It must’ve been a very warm, kind of almost like a family event.
Padnos: It was very familial. I sat next to Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger’s wife on the other side and here’s little Seymour Padnos from Holland, Michigan. I never expected to be in that society of people.
Smith: Do you remember the last time you saw the president?
Padnos: Yes, I do, it was in California and we flew out there to the, I forgot the name of the hotel. The president was there and it’s the first time that I ever saw him sit on a chair. He sat on a barstool and seemed quite able, although obviously not working the crowd as he typically did. And thinking to myself that I’m glad I came to California although, at my age at that time, that was quite a trip – and feeling good about it.
Smith: Did you reminisce about the first campaign?
Padnos: I never saw President Ford, but what he would say, “How’s everything going in western Michigan?”, “Tell me about what’s going on in western Michigan.” In a fleeting moment, “How do you do?” all that, and I knew that the press of his prominence limited the amount of time that I should spend in taking…you know. But he was interested, he wanted to know. There were a lot of things I would’ve liked to have said that you just didn’t feel privileged to take that much time to do. There were lots of people trying to say hello to the president and here I was, I didn’t want to overstay my presence.
Smith: What do you remember of the funeral?
Padnos: I had wanted to go to Washington, but my family discouraged me. They said, “Dad, you’re not up to it and you probably won’t get close enough to be of any significance anyway,” and so, they convinced me. I was in Florida at the time and they convinced me not to do that. However, my wife, Esther, who’s ever my companion, said, “We’ll go to Grand Rapids”. So we chartered … you’re challenging me now…And I remember flying into Grand Rapids and the group in Grand Rapids were so kind. They wanted to know when I was arriving and what the tail number of the plane was and so forth and so on. And they were going to make (inaudible) and I begged off, I didn’t need any special consideration. I knew they had enough other things on their hands. They made sure I was to know that there were to be tickets available at the hotel. And I remember having a friend of mine go to the hotel and pick up my invitations.
Smith: Were you surprised by the crowds?
Padnos: I was a part of the entourage on the bus and it was just overwhelming driving down the avenue and seeing all the people on both sides of the … Don’t get me emotional.
He was a dear friend. He was kind to me, almost like a member of a family. I watched diligently on television the whole development in Washington. I was impressed with Betty Ford standing there. My wife and I kept saying, “How can she possibly do this?” And then the congressman passed out in the background and my wife said, “And there but by the grace of God be you.” And so I was thankful that I was able to watch from my apartment and take it all in..
Smith: I think you just answered my question. I was going to say how you would remember Gerald Ford. How do you think Gerald Ford should be remembered by the country?
Padnos: With great appreciation for all that he did. You know, when he pardoned Nixon, I kept saying to my kids, who were so violently opposed to the Nixon performance, “Can you imagine the president of the United States going to prison?” He did the right thing. And, of course, at the time I wasn’t very popular in my own family for defending his actions and I’ve, subsequently, been vindicated. The world knows that he did the right thing. I was proud to know him. I was proud for his persistent recognition of the right thing to do. I have to say this, if I had been part of the Nixon administration, and he had asked me to go break in someplace, I’d probably have done it because I’m that kind of a follower.
Smith: The difference is, in the Ford administration, no one would ever think of making that request.
Padnos: No. No.
Smith: Perfect. Perfect, Seymour. That’s exactly what we want.