Tyne Berlanga is the daughter of Susan Ford Bales and granddaughter of President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford. Berlanga was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on June 24, 2010 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: First of all, thank you for doing this. You have a unique perspective. Certainly we’ve talked to of your grandfather’s contemporaries, but I don’t think we’ve talked to anyone…
Berlanga: The grandchild.
Smith: Yes, which is very distinctive – different, I assume, from children.
Berlanga: Oh yes, because we get spoiled way more.
Smith: First of all, what were they like as grandparents?
Berlanga: Incredible. Well first there were the five girls, so we were Grandpa’s five little blonde angels and we literally were his angels. My mom Susan had me and Heather and then Uncle Mike had Sara, Becca, and Hannah, in that order. And whenever we’d go to Beaver Creek Grandma would always get us matching outfits and take our picture and we would put on shows for them. Regardless of the fact that Grandpa was a former president, he was just a really caring grandpa. The times with him were always magical. He and Grandma always made holidays so special. I think my husband thinks I’m nuts about Fourth of July, but we’d always go and spend Fourth of July in Vail and Beaver Creek, go to Pepi and Sheika’s, do the fireworks. They always made the holidays magical.
Smith: And you have an ice cream named after you.
Berlanga: I do. The Sara Tyne.
Smith: Yes, how did that happen?
Berlanga: I believe Grandma and Grandpa were at a restaurant, I know the name…
Smith: It’s called the Left Bank.
Berlanga: Yes, and my mom had me when Grandma and Grandpa were there, and I guess they got the news, or that was the day, and so the chef named the ice cream after me and Sara. He was so cute at the funeral, he came up to me and I know I had met him before, but I had grown since then. It had been a while and he came up to me in his sweet French accent, “You are Tyne! You are Tyne of Sara Tyne! I have the ice cream!” He’s so sweet and it’s really flattering to have an ice cream named after me. I have to take my daughter there one day to go have the Sara Tyne ice cream. I mean, you don’t realize it at the time, but Grandpa made sure we knew how to swim because that was important to him.
Smith: Is that because he swam every day?
Berlanga: Because he swam. So every time we’d go out to visit him, he’d take us out to the pool, just him and you, and he’d say, “Okay, show me your laps.” And you’d go and do your freestyle swimming and then you’d do your breaststroke, and then you’d do your backstroke. It was kind of that special thing you had with Grandpa. And it was important to him that you could ski, so he made sure we had skiing lessons. We didn’t know that it was any big deal, but every morning Grandpa would walk you to ski lessons and he’d carry your skis on his shoulder. He didn’t even make Mom take us; he just took us to ski lessons every morning.
Smith: And this was after he’d stopped skiing.
Berlanga: Yes, after he’d stopped skiing. So he’d be up, he’d have his breakfast, he’d read his papers and then he’d take us to ski lessons. That was just a special time to have with Grandpa and it was just great on a grandpa level; but you don’t realize until you’re a grownup that he didn’t have to do any of that stuff with us. It was really important to him that the things he loved, he instilled in us as we were young, and now they’ve become things that we love to do. And it was full circle moment that my daughter, Joy, when we were out visiting my Grandma for spring break, figured out how to swim in Grandpa’s pool. So when we were there visiting Grandma at Rancho Mirage, she learned how to swim.
Smith: That’s wonderful.
Berlanga: It was very cool.
Smith: Let’s back up first because there were the two houses.
Smith: And how were things different in each?
Berlanga: Well, Beaver Creek was pretty special because the granddaughters had the loft. They took an attic and just made it into a space that, maybe at the tallest, was five and a half feet tall. So it was perfect for little granddaughters. There were six twin beds and the ceilings were arched, so if you sat up too quickly you’d get a wall in the face. But for us, it was perfect and we loved it. So we’d have our little floor to ourselves and no one would really ever come up to the loft to bother us. They would just stand there. But Beaver Creek you would go for holidays; for the Fourth of the July, for Christmas and that’s where everyone would congregate.
Smith: The house was big enough that all of the kids had their own rooms.
Berlanga: It fit everybody. All the kids had their own rooms and all the granddaughters got to stay together in the loft. Once Jack had his boys, the granddaughters were old enough; we’d all kind of spread out. But now Jack’s boys stay in the loft and the granddaughters have been moved to the adult bedrooms. It was fun because with cousins you could play and make noise and it was good that we’d be away from the house. I remember our Christmases. Christmas morning they’d always make us wait at the top of the stairs while the grownups were downstairs getting everything ready. And then Grandpa would say, “Alright, come down,” and we’d all run down the stairs to the Christmas tree, and of course, it looked like the whole neighborhood’s presents were under our tree, the way they spoiled us. But, that house was just fun. It’s where everyone congregated. The dining room table was big enough that we’d have big Pictionary games, boys against the girls. Grandpa can’t draw a lick, so he would always be looking over to see what girls were drawing and steal from us.
Smith: And he never really mastered computers, did he?
Berlanga: No, he didn’t.
Smith: I think he learned to play Solitaire.
Berlanga: Solitaire and maybe Bridge on the computer, but that was about it.
Smith: And the story was that he could receive emails, he just couldn’t send them.
Berlanga: No. And I think he tried. Mom and Vaden, I think, really tried to get him to learn how to use the computer, but to no avail.
Smith: But your grandmother, she was computer literate?
Berlanga: A little bit. I think so. I mean, you could send her emails. There was a time that you could send emails, but I think for the most part, they preferred the written letter. But Palm Springs was always fun because you had the pool, the house around the pool, and usually when you went and visited them in Rancho Mirage, it was just you because the house isn’t really big enough for all of us.
Smith: That house was all on one level.
Berlanga: Yeah. All on one level, kind of built in an L-shape around the pool. It’s fun because it’s kind of like a compound. They’ve got the tennis courts and I remember Grandpa would let me drive his golf cart and I crashed his golf cart.
Smith: Do you remember how old you were?
Berlanga: Probably – maybe ten, if ten. But it backs up to the golf course and there’re the orange trees and citrus trees and I remember Grandpa going out and picking kumquats and eating them right off the tree. It really just felt like a resort.
Smith: Beats Michigan in the winter.
Berlanga: Yes, it does.
Smith: Have you been in Michigan in the winter?
Berlanga: Only for the funeral. That was the only time and from what I hear, it was pretty mild. We spent a week there at the beach in the summer and I thought, hey, Michigan’s pretty nice, and Mom said, “Well, you’ve never been here in the winter.” But I think the desert’s always fun because it’s kind of one on one with Grandma and Grandpa. You don’t have to share with anyone else. It’s just warm and beautiful. They sure know how to pick the places to live, that’s for sure.
Smith: What was the routine like?
Berlanga: Well, Grandpa was always up before everyone else. He was always up, usually sitting – they have these great big chairs, super comfy – he’d be sitting there reading his paper in the mornings, drinking his cup of coffee. Grandpa’s the one who got me hooked up on grapefruit because he would have his little half grapefruit in the morning and when I’d go to Grandpa’s house I’d always have the other half of grapefruit that he didn’t eat. So you’d have a little time with Grandpa, and he’d eat his breakfast and he’d go swim, and right about as he was swimming was usually when Grandma emerged.
Smith: She’s not a morning person.
Berlanga: No, she’s not. Grandpa’s a morning person, Mom’s a morning person, and so am I. And then, it’s funny because Mike’s got Grandma’s sleeping in and so all of his girls sleep in like Grandma does. Grandpa’s always up in the morning. You knew if you woke up before Grandpa, it was time to go back to bed.
Smith: And not just on Christmas morning.
Berlanga: No. And even then, if you were caught down the stairs, you’d get in trouble. We always had to wait for Uncle Steve to wake up Christmas morning, too. Uncle Steve would always say, “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to wake up.” Anyway, he liked to give us a hard time.
Smith: Talk about opposites attracting, because he was such a stickler for punctuality.
Berlanga: Oh, my goodness.
Smith: Tell us about that.
Berlanga: Well, we’re always downstairs – in the bottom of the Beaver Creek house you’ve got the mud room, the coat closet and we’re all usually bundled up, probably to go do the Christmas tree lighting and we’re all waiting downstairs, the agents are outside, cars are running and Grandpa going, “Betty!” And no matter how many times he asked, she always came on her schedule. Even at the funeral, I think, we still probably had to wait a little bit. But Grandpa was always five minutes early, and Grandma was always five minutes later. I don’t know how they worked it out.
Smith: Did you ever discuss it with her?
Berlanga: I think she just understood that if she was going to look as beautiful as she always did, then he would just let it be.
Smith: That’s interesting because I’ve often thought part of it was a kind of perfectionism.
Smith: And tell me if I’m wrong, I’ve been told it and then I saw it, that for someone who had been in the public eye as much as she was, she still got butterflies before going on stage or to give a speech. Which is another side of perfectionism, and actually, if you ever stop worrying, that’s when you should worry, because you obviously want to be at your best.
Berlanga: You care. Exactly. I think she always cared how people appeared, how her granddaughters appeared. I mean, she cared that we looked appropriate, she really didn’t want – when it’s casual, it’s no big deal – but I don’t think she ever wanted someone saying anything bad about her family, how they looked because she didn’t impart what being appropriate is. I think something that I really learned from Grandma is appearance, class, decorum, how to act like a lady.
Smith: Which is not stuffiness.
Berlanga: No, it’s not, because she’s as modern as they come. But there is something about being a modern, sensible woman, but still not walking around looking like you don’t care about your appearance. And I think that was really the interesting part about Grandma; she’s a classy lady, but she’s not stuck, she’s not stuck in the old days. She’s pretty with it.
Smith: She’s fascinating because one senses that maybe he was a little bit more of a traditionalist.
Berlanga: Yes, absolutely.
Smith: Even in another context, I remember saying in my eulogy that most of us tend to get a little more conservative as we get older, and they didn’t seem to. And in fact, maybe part of it was the party went so far to the right on a number of things. Whether it was the whole abortion issue or gay rights or things that you don’t really associate with a conservative Republican, or even a former president; I’ve often wondered how much of that was her influence on him; how much of it was having children and grandchildren bringing up new ideas and new ways of seeing things.
Berlanga: I think that is a lot of it. I think part of it is Grandma coming from an arts background, dancing with Martha Graham. I think she was always kind of poking at him a little bit. But I also think Grandpa had just – he followed his gut, no matter what the party said. If he felt it was right or in terms of equal rights, I think he just listened to his heart. And when it all comes down to it, he’s a good guy. I think he and Grandma weren’t loud and proud about anything; I think they just quietly knew what was important to them, and I think Grandpa’s faith had a lot to do with it. I think he felt we were all created equal in God’s eyes and I think that was something he really carried with him.
Also, I think, as grandchildren we tended to stir the pot a little bit. But I guess Jack was a wild child, but then became the most conservative one because Uncle Jack and I got into it one day about – I think I was talking about gay rights – and it always seemed like Beaver Creek – the big table always turned to politics somehow. I was an art student at SMU and it was probably my most liberal time of my life. I was talking about gay rights and Uncle Jack was talking about how Republicans are persecuted just as much as gay people are and I pretty much laughed at him. But Uncle Jack and I got into it a little bit. Grandma pulled me aside after dinner, I think she could tell I was a little defeated and pretty ticked off. She said, “You know, he used to be my most wild boy. I don’t know what happened to him. But it’s really nice to hear different opinions around the table.”
Smith: Really? What an encouraging thing to hear.
Berlanga: It is, and no matter where you came from, and even with Grandpa – Grandpa, again, when I was at SMU – Grandpa and I got into it. I got onto him about how America doesn’t give enough to the arts; how we don’t fund it enough in the schools; how compared to countries in Europe, the United States is lacking in its arts funding. And Grandpa kind of got onto me about every year we give more, and da, da, da. And me still being a mouthy teenager, said, “We don’t give enough…” Well, about two weeks later at my college apartment, a big packet was sent to me. He had requested, and I can’t remember from what congressman, but a copy of the budget and the numbers for the past five years of how America has increased their arts spending.
Smith: It sounds like he took what you said seriously.
Berlanga: He took what you said seriously, and you were never ashamed or made to feel bad for your opinion. They really encouraged discussion. It was just open and polite, we never really said anything hurtful, but roundtable – let’s have at it and the granddaughters always stirred the pot with their concerns. I think Grandma and Grandpa kind of sat back and appreciated that they had raised a strong minded family. And I think had we not expressed an opinion, had maybe where they would find _______________. I think, if nothing else, they just wanted us to have a strong head on our shoulders.
Smith: I also wonder in a large sense if the seeds were always there. But I also wonder if, for him, the experience of going through the intervention and then becoming really a part of her work at the Betty Ford Center, just brought out the compassion that existed; sort of institutionalized it because obviously their lives were really caught up in a lot of what was going on and they saw friends of theirs, good people, decent people, who had a weakness. That’s got to be a lesson in and of itself.
Berlanga: I never saw Grandpa – I know he can be a tough guy…
Smith: Did you see his temper?
Berlanga: Of course, he has a temper. Yeah. Yes, Grandpa has a temper.
Smith: What would set it off?
Berlanga: Oh, you know – Grandma would be late, tended to be something – you know he doesn’t like lateness. He doesn’t like bickering. Now, discussion is fine, but he really doesn’t like bickering.
Smith: We were told early on, I think, maybe it was Penny who said it, at one point he had mostly women in the office. And he politely, but firmly, made the point that he wasn’t interested in backbiting, gossiping, all of those things that take away from the work.
Berlanga: Yes. With your parents and your aunts and uncles, you show respect. He really doesn’t like the sass, and he shouldn’t have to put up with it. I don’t know if you’ve heard this story before, but I think I was about six, maybe five, maybe a little younger, and I had just learned to swim without my floaties. I think we were at Rancho Mirage and we were in the pool. It was Uncle Jack’s birthday and I was in the pool; Jack was on one side of the pool and Grandpa was on the other. Grandpa had just come from the office, so he was in his suit – this was still a man who was “retired” but would put on a suit most times just to go to the office. And so he had come back from the office; he was in this gorgeous suit and nice shoes, leather belt, and him and Uncle Jack thought they would tease me and they were throwing the ball over me and pretending that they were going to throw it at me. And – oh goodness – I got really nervous and so I decided to push my Grandpa in the pool. And so they were doing something and I pushed Grandpa in the pool and I think the pool started looking like a Jacuzzi because he got so hot. He came up sputtering, and I immediately went in between my mother’s legs and hid there. You could tell he was upset, and he just kind of, “Now, Tyne, you shouldn’t be doing those things,” but you could tell he was so mad. He had lost his temper, but he wasn’t going to lose it on his granddaughter.
Smith: That’s a great story because one senses that it was a lifelong effort that he made – almost always successfully – but it required an effort.
Berlanga: And I think the fact that I was hiding behind my mother. I knew that I had messed up really bad; that it wasn’t quite as funny as I thought it was. But to a five year old, you don’t understand a nice suit and a leather belt and shoes. It’s one of those things that you don’t really get in trouble with Grandpa unless you’ve done something really wrong. He had a lot of understanding and compassion for his grandchildren.
Smith: What would it take? You’ve opened the door…what would it take?
Berlanga: I don’t think I really got in a lot of trouble. My sister got in trouble. She lived with him for a summer and didn’t come home at curfew and she got in big trouble for that. But I think for Grandpa, it’s got to be big. You don’t really see him – he really doesn’t lose it that often.
Smith: You mentioned the suit. His fiscal conservatism expressed itself in a number of ways, including the fact that I guess he had closets full of suits older than you.
Berlanga: And they are still there.
Smith: And I guess one of Mrs. Ford’s jobs was to make sure that he didn’t go out in public in them.
Berlanga: Oh, yeah. She always made sure we all looked good. You had a feeling that Grandma probably picked out what he was wearing and he just put it on – as probably the smart man that he is, because she had a great sense of style.
Smith: Was she a disciplinarian?
Berlanga: Yes. I would say Grandma probably was the iron fist in the house, if anyone. The grandchildren ate in the kitchen. We didn’t eat in the dining room unless it was like a special occasion. There were a lot more rules. You made sure you took your shoes off when you entered the house.
You only make Grandma ask once. But now, it’s funny, with great-grandchildren? All the rules are out the window. I brought Joy to see her – this was before Cruz was born, and I was talking to Mom, “Well, I don’t want to put the highchair in the dining room, I don’t want Joy to make the dining room a mess.” And we’re sitting there having lunch at the dinning table and she said, “Well bring Joy’s highchair out here so she can eat with us,” and she was letting Joy eat crackers and juice in the dining room and giving crackers to the dog. And I kind of looked at Mom like “are you kidding?” Apparently great-grandchildren just don’t have any rules.
Smith: It skips a generation.
Berlanga: It does, it absolutely skips a generation. She lets Cruz eat her robes, just those things don’t seem to bother her, or aren’t as important anymore. It’s nice and Joy loves going to GG’s house – that’s what she calls Grandma – GG. And so she loves going there and she loves picking the fruit from the trees and swimming in GG’s pool.
Smith: Isn’t it nice that she’ll have memories?
Berlanga: Yes, it is, it’s really nice. And she asks to go there, so that tells me she does remember visiting her. And she can pick both their pictures out. We picked up some presidents flashcards and she really doesn’t understand the concept that Great-Grandpa was a president, but she did tell Grandma, “Well, Great-Grandpa played football, and he swims, and sometimes he was a president.” That’s what she told Grandma. She gets it, but she doesn’t really understand what that means.
Smith: How old were all of you before you understood what it meant?
Berlanga: I don’t know.
Smith: Was it something in the background or did they talk about their days in the White House?
Berlanga: Well, Grandpa would more tell stories before the White House – when he was a Ranger at Yellowstone, the bear story. The bear story was always – now you have to get Uncle Steve to tell the bear story because Uncle Steve tells the bear story the best. But I would hear the bear story and he would like to tell stories about Grand Rapids and his mom, because I never met Great-Grandma Ford. He likes to tell how he courted Grandma, how Grandma knew that she was going to marry Grandpa because one night – I guess Grandpa might have been waiting for her when she came home with another beau – and after the beau had escorted her in, I think Grandpa took him aside and said, “Now what are your intentions with Betty?” And she heard Grandpa asking. I think that’s when Grandma knew that that was going to be the man she was going to marry.
Berlanga: He more told those stories. We would have to ask about the White House stories.
Smith: He clearly was very close to his mother.
Berlanga: Yes. And from what I can tell, she was a spectacular woman. Grandma talks highly of her, and so does Mom. Everyone loved Grandma Ford.
Smith: She died in the church pew, and when they went back home they found her appointment book full for the next month. Does that sound like a family trait?
Berlanga: Yeah. I think Grandpa really – he was his mother’s son.
Smith: And one sensed, too, that he really had in a lot of ways advanced views about what women could do because first of all, he’d seen what his mother had been put through, and how she came through that. One sensed that he always felt that she had been victimized in a number of ways; but refused to be a victim.
Berlanga: Yes, exactly. And then he went and married another strong woman. He was raised by a strong woman and then married another strong woman. I think it was important to Grandma that she raised a strong daughter as well as strong granddaughters. I think it was very important to Grandma and to Grandpa that just because we were girls, that didn’t mean we shouldn’t speak our mind.
Smith: Politicians are notorious for being in a bubble, and in a curious way, maybe in the White House more than almost anywhere else. I remember Bob Dole, when his daughter was in high school – this is ’64 or ’65 – and he heard her talk about this musical group. And so he wrote to the British embassy to see if the Beatles could come and perform at Robin’s school.
Berlanga: Oh, no. Had no idea?
Smith: No idea. Politicians tend to get very absorbed in what they are doing.
Berlanga: I think they find that stuff just not as important – irrelevant. And I think that’s part of, too, why Grandpa didn’t like cattiness or bickering.
Smith: He wasn’t a gossip, was he?
Berlanga: No, he wasn’t a gossip and if it wasn’t relevant, I don’t think he really felt like he should waste his time on it. I just think he had done so many important things and had lived such important stuff, why waste your time on something that wouldn’t do or someone else any good? And I think that was really his attitude towards it all.
Grandma loves Dancing with the Stars, that would be the only thing. She loves when Dancing with the Stars is on. But I think the pop culture…
Smith: Did he know that MTV existed?
Berlanga: No, I think he thinks they were silly shows, kind of trash on TV maybe? News was always on in the house. In the evening he watched the news. I think Grandma may have read a People magazine here and there. He loved going to the movies. I saw, I think it was Apollo 13, and I think that was really neat to watch with him. It came out at Christmas time and I think we all went as a family to go see it.
Smith: How would people react when this group of Fords came into the theater?
Berlanga: A lot of times, they’d just have two rows blocked off and then right before the trailers started we walk in and sit down. But I know Grandpa would love a good bag of popcorn. He’d love his junk food. In California even, towards the end of his life he’d still ask for an In and Out Burger and a chocolate milkshake.
You’d always hear the whispers and then usually at the end of a meal when we’re leaving is when people would usually clap and shake hands and stuff.
Smith: At some point did the light bulb go on?
Berlanga: Yeah, it was weird and it was really sweet. It was incredibly sweet. And people were typically very respectful – let them enjoy their meals with their grandchildren and children – and usually would wait until the end. Kids – he would always shake their hands and sign something for kids. I think you do feel when you’re out that people were looking and staring. But then after five or ten minutes you just kind of get used to it.
Smith: Autograph dealers were a bane to his existence.
Berlanga: Yes. He didn’t like that, no. But I think like anyone, I’m sure he appreciates – he worked hard.
Smith: It’s nice to be noticed.
Berlanga: It’s nice to be noticed and as long as it was done in a respectful way and not disruptive; they were always really pretty good sports about it.
Smith: And my sense is, that they were beloved in Vail.
Berlanga: Oh, yeah.
Smith: They weren’t just visible.
Berlanga: That was not their hometown, but it’s their town – they own Beaver Creek. It’s Grandma and Grandpa’s town.
Smith: We’ve been told that they, more than anyone else, put the place on the map as a year-round destination.
Berlanga: Oh, yeah. And that’s where I have the most memories – in Beaver Creek. That’s where I consider the extended Beaver Creek family – the Pepi and Sheika’s and all of them. Those are people that would just be in your heart forever. And just be part of making all those memories. Steve Jones up in the stables. And probably, too, because we got all of these wonderful extravagancies while we were there, and were treated so special. But it’s really a magical place.
Smith: At some point you realized your grandfather was the one that they had turn on the Christmas lights.
Berlanga: Yeah. It’s pretty cool. It’s very cool. You know, he didn’t turn on the Christmas, he let his granddaughters turn on Christmas lights. When I moved to Frisco and I heard they were doing the Christmas tree lighting, I just let them know who was really – I had a resume full of light switching. But it really is pretty cool. It’s pretty cool to know what he did, I think. Growing up though, I’ve just now started going back and learning the history – I think I purposely shied away from learning the details of the time when he was president before and after. But I did know kind of hazily about Watergate and him pardoning Nixon. And I kind of knew that it was a very polarizing decision, but I think when you are in your teens, I think you really didn’t want to have an opinion on it, I think you didn’t want to hear people’s opinion.
I think I just knew he was president then and that was fine and it was very cool. I didn’t want to have to get into a discussion about it, or give my opinion on it. He was my grandpa and he was president then. I think now, my stepdad just recently sent me something about the wreath laying at his birthday and there was a woman who had evacuated from Vietnam and I realized as a grownup, that I really have no idea about history at that time. And I think I shied away from really learning about it. And so now as an adult with some perspective, I’m going back now and kind of learning the history leading up to his presidency and afterwards, to kind of understand the scope of everything that he went through.
Smith: Did you ever hear him talk about Nixon?
Berlanga: No. I think he was a good man. That’s pretty much – you know, Warren Commission, I think I asked him about that once, and he said – JFK – that movie made him really mad.
Smith: I think he was on a plane and he was a captive audience.
Berlanga: I have never really heard him say, to ask us specifically, but I feel like he specifically asked us not to go see that movie, I think it made him so mad. I think I asked him about the Warren Commission and he said those conspiracy theories are a bunch of crap, something along those lines. And the Warren Commission – what we found is correct and so I think all that stuff made him pretty upset.
Smith: I only heard him disparage two people, and the worst he could come up with was, “He’s a bad man.” And one was Gordon Liddy and one was John Dean, and I think a lot of people would probably second his opinion. Did you ever hear him talk about it?
Berlanga: No, he really doesn’t speak badly about people. And I think he really does, with everyone, try to look and find the good in people. Even with Nixon I think he felt like he was a good man who just got caught up in a bad situation. And I guess, from what I’ve learned about Grandpa and from what I’ve learned about politicians in general, is even though they might have politics I don’t agree with, or they have opinions that I don’t think are right, they are still people and for the most part have all been friends to my family. So I find it really hard to just cross a line through someone or to disparage someone. Because no matter what they do or if they make a mistake, they are still a person and I think that’s what I learned the most about Grandpa. Yes, he has the title of president, but he’s still a person and I think they’re all just doing the best job that they can do.
Smith: It’s fascinating to see the relationship with the Kennedys because, as a young congressman, he had an office across the hall from Jack Kennedy.
Berlanga: Which I just learned.
Smith: When the Kennedy Library gave him the Profiles in Courage Award, it was such a turning point; and to see Senator Kennedy and Caroline that day and their interaction, it was just such a privilege to be a fly on the wall. And, of course, the friendship with Jimmy Carter, which I think still surprises people.
Berlanga: Yes, I had no idea. To see that friendship and Jimmy Carter’s eulogy was just so touching. He came up to me on Air Force One; I was holding my daughter and it was one of those things where I was whispering, “What do you think? Think we could maybe get a picture of Joy with President Carter?” And without anyone saying anything, he just saw me walking by and he goes, “Well, let me hold that baby.” He just took Joy out of my arms and I think you don’t realize with the news bites and the speeches and everything, that these are just people and they are not in this business, for the most part, to make a lot of money. They really do have good intentions and especially with Grandpa’s time, they were all buddies. They all lived in DC. I think you miss that these days.
Smith: A very different culture.
Berlanga: Yeah. And what you can learn from Grandpa is that the man who defeated him has become a close friend. He could have been a sore loser, he could have turned his back, but he did everything in his power to let President Carter become a successful president. I think there is a camaraderie with the presidents that a lot of people don’t realize, because there are not a lot of people in that club and everyone knows it’s kind of a thankless job. I didn’t realize the friendship between the Carters and my grandparents until the funeral, and it’s really pretty special.
Smith: It is. Were birthdays a big deal?
Berlanga: Yes. We love celebrating Grandpa’s birthday and usually we would go out for Fourth of July and just stay through until his birthday. So we’d stay in Beaver Creek for two weeks in the middle of July.
Smith: And of course, the Fourth of July, they always reviewed the parade in Vail.
Berlanga: Oh, yes, and sometimes we got to ride the fire trucks in the parade. So birthdays were a big deal. Grandma didn’t like celebrating her birthday as much as Grandpa, but birthdays were a big deal. I’ll never forget – maybe he was 88 or 89, for some reason I sent – I just had my days mixed up – and so I sent his birthday card for June 14th instead of July 14th. And then on June 14th I picked up the phone to call my grandpa on his birthday, and, “Happy Birthday, Grandpa, how are you? Miss you…” And he was so sweet and let me go on, and he goes, “Well, thank you for your sweet card, but I think you’re a month early.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, it’s July 14th and not June 14th,” and I went gulp. But he was so sweet and he was like, “Well, you’re the first one to wish me a happy birthday.” He never made you feel bad about it. He just thought it was sweet that his granddaughter was a month early.
Smith: It’s not a secret that she had a somewhat more ribald sense of humor than he did.
Smith: Ann Cullen tells a story about how she and her [Mrs. Ford] would be in there roaring with laughter, and he’d poke his head in and it just sort of went right over.
Berlanga: And Grandma is still in on the joke. Grandma just gets it and ah, I’m sure she’ll kill me for saying this, but…
Smith: I can probably tell you an even better – but you tell yours and I’ll tell mine.
Berlanga: My husband Hector, he and I moved in together before we got married, and Hector came up with me for Fourth of July, and for some reason Mom and Vaden couldn’t come, but all my uncles were there, and Uncle Steve and Uncle Jack specifically – well, first of all when we were younger they were the tickle monsters, and now they just kind of put all the granddaughter’s husbands through the wringer – give them a hard time – you’ve got to initiate them somehow. And so somehow Jack kind of gets wind…so Hector and I probably weren’t going to really broadcast that we were living together before we got married. We just – you know. Somehow Jack kind of got onto it and got wind that we were living together and was giving both Hector and I a hard time at the dinner table, in front of Grandpa and Grandma. And poor Hector, he’s just sitting there trying not to make a bad impression and say the wrong thing, and Grandma finally pipes up and says, “Well, you’ve got to try the shoe on before you buy it.” And that just shut everyone down.
Smith: Talk something about her that might surprise people.
Berlanga: Well, besides her sense of humor…well, everyone was giving me a hard time that my husband, he is a ballet dancer, not that they don’t know that she’s a dancer, but, you know, growing up they said the boys were going to be football players and the girls were going to be ballet dancers. But I think she was really proud that I was in theater and my husband was in dance, and that was important to her, I think. Keeping the arts alive was very important to her.
Smith: Well, that’s interesting because I think she was clearly the one – Martha Graham got the Medal of Honor.
Berlanga: Yes, and she was behind that, I’m sure.
Smith: And Alexander Calder, the sculptor, who did what has now become Grand Rapids’ symbol.
Berlanga: The red thing?
Smith: The irony of ironies – your grandfather got the federal funding, and it was one of the first big National Endowment for the Arts projects. I’m not sure he was a big Calder fan beforehand, but he was responsible. And subsequently, he didn’t want a statue of himself in front of the museum and they settled on the spaceman because of his interest in the space program. But he did say to someone, “Whatever you do, make it representational art.” He did not want another Calder.
Smith: One senses your grandmother might have a little bit broader approach to the arts.
Berlanga: I would say Grandpa is a simple, Midwestern man. I would say Grandma is more of a city girl.
Smith: Maybe that’s what part of the opposites that attracted.
Berlanga: Yes, and I think that’s what brings them such a good balance, is they balanced each other and taught each other. Like most successful married couples, they said they never went to bed angry. I even asked Mom, I said, “Grandma says her and Grandpa never got into it, did they?” And she said, “Oh, I’m sure they got into it, they just…” but I guess they never let the kids see it. I think they were really smart about how about they handled things.
Smith: She obviously went through a period back in the Sixties – you’re mother has written about this – where she was really representative of a whole lot of women of her generation.
Smith: Who were trying to find a role in this emerging, ill defined culture. I’ve always thought your grandmother was a remarkable combination of the traditional and the visionary in some ways. She has a foot in both camps.
Smith: But that’s not always easy to live that way. Did she talk about it?
Berlanga: Women would come up to her and say, “Thank you for changing my life, you’ve done so much.” And Grandma would say, “What thing have I done?” Because she’s done the alcoholism, she’s done equal rights for woman, she’s done breast cancer, and I guess I should probably ask her who instilled in her the courage to not be told no – or to not bite her tongue.
Smith: Did she talk about her parents?
Berlanga: Not too much. She talks about worrying that Grandpa Ford, Grandpa’s dad, would be wary of Grandpa marrying her because she was a divorcee. And that was not looked well upon.
Smith: In West Michigan, generally, in the whole Dutch Reform Church, there was a very different kind of attitude in those days. There was this uncertainty about her dad’s death, and whether it was in fact suicide or an accident, and she’s suggested in passing, I think, in one of her books that it was probably suicide. That’s a trauma under any circumstances, and you don’t know what people take away from it.
Berlanga: She really doesn’t talk too much about her parents to us. And I think it might just be – I think she still tries to shelter the grandchildren a good deal.
Smith: Does she still have a political interest? The ERA never passed, but…
Berlanga: I think she just likes to know what’s going on. I think when President Obama won, she said, “It’s good to see a black man in the office.” I think she just is happy to see the nation moving forward; not necessarily Democratic or Republican, but just kind of opening the mind of America to all the possibilities of who could lead our country.
Smith: I would love to get her and Michelle Obama in the same room.
Berlanga: I think it would be very interesting. They are two like-minded, forward thinking, can’t be put down, women. And I think my husband himself being a Hispanic man, I think he probably was a little intimidated by the fact, but they never even blinked. Even my grandmother said, “It’s finally nice to have someone with brown hair in the family.” My daughter has curls and she just puts her hands in my daughter’s hair and says, “Finally, we have someone with curls.” I never saw any prejudices from them or from anyone in my family. We were just raised that everyone is equal.
Smith: He loved to travel. And he was really in good shape until around his 90th birthday, and I think one of the doctors probably said to him about then, you’ve really got to cut back. And that must have been really tough for him to accept.
Smith: Because among other things, it’s another sign of your mortality and limitations and all of that.
Berlanga: Well, and not being able to go to Beaver Creek was very hard for him. I really do believe that was his favorite place to go and spend his time.
Smith: And they insisted on going that last summer, even though everyone told them you shouldn’t.
Berlanga: It was just important to them. And I think that house has so many memories and that place has so many memories and I think he just loves the valley and all that means to him and all that big community. He brought up the valley and he would still go out and fill the birdfeeder out the window because they’ve got a big bay window where he sits and reads his papers and he loved to see the birds out there eating the bird food. And every now and then, maybe once every five, ten years, you’d get a bear out there, you’d get a porcupine. But it was just important to him and I’m glad he got to go that last time.
Smith: It had to have been difficult. The Secret Service are not trained to provide medical care, and your grandmother really didn’t want to bring outsiders into the house.
Smith: First you want to deny that the need exists, it’s just human. And then you want to make it clear that I’m taking care of my husband. How did that play out?
Berlanga: I think she’s still dealing with the fact that she has nurses. I think for the last part of his life, Grandma was making sure that Grandpa was okay. I think that’s what her focus was, and even with as many people that were there – housekeeper, chef, Grandma and Grandpa liked their privacy, they liked to take care of themselves. They weren’t someone who just kind of sat there and let people wait on them. So I think bringing that in and giving up control – Grandma is a little bit of a control freak – that runs strong down Mom’s and my line as well. She likes things done the way she likes them done, and if they’re not done that way, then it’s not okay. And I think bringing anyone in, especially if they don’t know how we like things done around here, it’s going to be more of an annoyance than anything. So I think once Grandpa did pass, I think having the nurses – I think Grandma finally took a breath and then realized that maybe she wasn’t in as good as shape as she thought she was in. But I think now they are good companions for Grandma, too. Just to have someone. You have the same set of nurses coming in and I know the faces and they’ve seen my children grow up.
Smith: I think maybe it was your sister who said, according to your grandmother, saying, “This getting old is not easy.”
Berlanga: Yes, she tells you that, it doesn’t feel good to get old. I think that is frustrating to her because they both were so active and not only active, but athletic. Fitness was part of their daily routine and being healthy. Not that she’s not healthy; but her body just doesn’t work like it used to. You’re 92. But her mind is still there and I think it frustrates – the aches and pains – that can’t be easy. And I think she misses her sweetheart.
Smith: She said when people asked and wanted her to do something, she said, “Tell them I’m retired.” At 92 you can be retired.
Berlanga: Exactly. That’s exactly right. And she spends her days now with her close friends and her family. And I think all that other stuff is great and fine, but I think her time now is very precious to her.
Smith: Anyone who gets to be 92, one of the problems is that you tend to outlive a lot of your contemporaries, your friends.
Berlanga: She still has a few friends that will come visit, and I know she talks on the phone a lot. I think, as a family, we all just try to make a point that someone is out there, if not every month, every couple of weeks, so that her days aren’t long. I can’t imagine being married to your best friend for over fifty years and then you spend the end of his life taking care of him and then when he’s gone…
Smith: Does she talk about him?
Berlanga: Oh, yeah, with pride and love, and she misses her sweetheart. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. But she loves to tell stories about him, and I try to get her to tell me – I ask her every time, “What was the favorite trip you took?” And she tells me that India was the favorite trip she took. I guess they saw the Taj Mahal at night and so the moon was reflecting. So I try to get the tidbits out of her while she’s giving us these stories.
Smith: You mentioned his faith and that’s interesting, because we all know about the Carters – I think lots of people during that week of the funeral – first of all, they were reintroduced to the family.
Smith: Secondly, they realized – again, everyone knows about the Reagans – they realized what a love match existed between the Fords. And then, maybe more subtly; this element of faith. Describe that.
Berlanga: He was never a man who wore it on his sleeve, but it was the strength that he had. It was where Grandpa derived most of his strength – was his faith
Smith: Did it come from his parents?
Berlanga: Yeah, I think so. We always grew up going to church with them. We’d go to church on Sundays and one of my last visits with Grandpa, my husband and I went out there. I was pregnant with my daughter, and he was trying to remember a Psalm and I pulled it down – if I’d go back and look at the Psalms – but it was about just having faith. And I really do believe that he was never afraid of dying. He believed that God had a plan and he instilled that faith in us.
He made sure we prayed at every meal. Also, before dinner we’d always say, “Who’s going to get the prayer? Who’s going to get the prayer?” You know he likes you if he asks you to do the prayer, and two nights in a row he asked Hector to do the prayer and Hector was only planning on one, because here’s the deal: Grandpa is probably going to ask you to say the blessing one night before dinner. You need to go over…you don’t want to go too long because any time you ask Uncle Mike to do the blessing he pontificates. He gives a sermon. And even then, you can see Steven and Grandpa kind of wrapping it up to Uncle Mike. Keep it quick, keep it nice, say you appreciate you are here. So two nights in a row he asked Hector and Hector kind of looked at me like a deer in the headlights; like, I only had one prayer ready to go – and Grandma goes, “Honey, you asked him last night, why don’t you have Jack do the blessing?” On Christmas Eve and we tell the story of Christ being born and the nativity. It was never shoved down our throats and was just who we were as a family. And it was just a quiet faith that you really didn’t have to question, you just knew it was there. It’s how we were raised.
Smith: I’ve read in a number of places that your grandmother loved Christmas.
Berlanga: Yes, yes: the decorating, the sweaters, the Christmas tree – the ten foot Christmas tree that they would bring in. It was always a big deal. She would wait until the grandchildren came and then we would all decorate the Christmas tree together. And the house – every single corner had a decoration and the mounds of things that people would send to the house. We must have had five buckets of popcorn with three different flavors, and the chocolates, and we would always have ribs for Christmas Eve dinner. Well, sometimes not ribs. We would have ribs at Christmas time, we’d also do it at Fourth of July, because Grandpa loved his ribs from Cleveland. I like to think she did it for the grandchildren, but she just loved it. Every little thing you could make special, she made it special. And she made, not a production out of it, but she heightened it. She heightened whatever she could.
Smith: A classic life-enhancer.
Berlanga: Yes. Absolutely.
Smith: But she is also very smart. I was talking to her about I want to do this for Joy and I want to do this and I want to take her to the Nutcracker, I want to do this…she said to me, “You don’t have to do everything every year, because if you do it every year, then it’s not special.” So she still had a way of renewing it. She’s very smart in how she did things. It’s kind of like she set these boundaries, but still allowed you to flourish. She’s just magical, that woman.
Smith: Did she ever talk about her own problems?
Berlanga: I think with drugs and alcohol she talked about it a little bit. She realized that she had a problem. She talks more about getting better and sobriety, but not too much. And I guess it’s not something that I pry into too much – so Grandma, you want to talk about that last cocktail?
Smith: A teenager reaches the age where it’s a potential issue and her own experience would be relevant in some ways.
Berlanga: I think she still giggled when I would say, “Oh, we had a wild night,” when I was in college. I think she thinks that. I guess now, having her as a grandmother, I guess I try with all that stuff just to make sure everything is in moderation and to recognize my history. And you also want to have respect for the fact that Betty Ford is your grandma and you don’t want to end up at her Center.
Smith: Do you remember the last time you saw him?
Berlanga: The last time I was supposed to see him was in Michigan, there when they opened the School of Public Service at the University of Michigan? That was when I was supposed to see him. I think the last time when I saw him reading the Psalm was, because I was pregnant and then I had a newborn. And so Joy was ten weeks, maybe twelve weeks old when we came out to Michigan and that was when I was supposed to see him and for him to meet Joy. And then, pretty much from then on, Grandma was very protective of who saw him. And all of my cousins and my sister, they got to see him towards the end – well, more recently than I had. When he passed, because he passed December 26th and I was planning on coming out right after New Years, I had a trip planned. I was really upset that I hadn’t just dropped everything and I was like, you have a newborn and you couldn’t do it, and I remember Becca saying, “You know, when I saw him last, you might just be grateful that you didn’t see him like that.” When I saw him he was walking, he was sitting up, he was very coherent, and so my last time with him it was really nice. So I did regret that he never got to meet Joy, but I do make it a point of Joy knowing who he is and how important he is to me.
Smith: What do you remember from the funeral? It must have been an overwhelming experience.
Berlanga: It’s a fog. Not only that, but I was traveling with a six month old baby, so I wasn’t sleeping.
Smith: Were you surprised by the amount of reaction?
Berlanga: Yes, absolutely. I think DC was the one where it was the most overwhelming, because it was night time when we came into the city.
Smith: Going to Alexandria.
Berlanga: Yes, and turning the corner and seeing the throngs of people standing out in the bitter cold, waving flags, holding signs, and just to catch, not even the casket, just a glimpse of the limo that was carrying my grandfather’s casket. It was so touching and to know – you hear that, oh your grandpa was a great president – oh, he touched so many lives. But for these people to take time out of their holiday, no less, this is Christmas time where all you want is to be bundled up at home with your family in front of the fire. To come out and take some of the precious time they have with their family to come stand there and show their support, it was really incredible. Stopping in front of the World War II memorial, and hearing them blow the whistle; that was really powerful.
Smith: And your grandmother, I’m told, was really impressed by the numbers and response.
Berlanga: Absolutely. And the people through the night would just go to pass by his casket in Michigan to get a chance to pay their respects. I was really touched and grateful. Because I think it really lifted up Grandma to see all of Grandpa’s hard work was realized. All of us went out at some point to shake people’s hands. Oh “that was so nice, that was so wonderful.” But I don’t think they realized how grateful we were to them that they would take their time to come pay their respects to one of our family members.
Smith: Had you been to Grand Rapids before?
Berlanga: I had when I was younger. When they rededicated the museum…
Smith: In ’97.
Berlanga: That was the last time I was there before the funeral. And then we’ve gone back since then, since the funeral. But it had been a while.
Smith: Nothing prepares you – that line stretched for two miles.
Berlanga: It was remarkable – absolutely. You just can’t imagine how many people he affected and touched. I remember one of the billboards said, “Gerald, O U R Ford.” And to know that he was coming home. So that was very cool.
Smith: And she managed to get through it.
Berlanga: She did. That woman is a trooper, you can’t tell her what she can’t do, because then she’ll tell you what’s what. She managed to get through it. It must have been the hardest time. She was very – again with us granddaughters – she is very protective of us, and so we got to see her a little bit, but I think she was going through such a hard time that she didn’t want us to see her suffer and having such a hard time. Because she knew we were all going through losing our grandfather, but I think it would have been really hard for us to see how much she was hurting.
Smith: There is that scene – that last long walk. She got out of the wheelchair and I think Steve and General Swan…
Berlanga: General Swan, yes.
Smith: And the story was, when she went back to the desert the next week, someone was complementing her on that and expressing amazement. And she said, “I just did what my husband would have wanted me to.”
Berlanga: Yes, exactly. She said, “This is what your grandpa wants me to do, and I’m going to do it for him.” I think that was what was so incredible about their marriage and what made it so strong – is they were honoring each other throughout their marriage.
Smith: It’s interesting because she got the Medal of Freedom before he did. She got a lot of recognition, and he seemed so proud of her. He just beamed.
Berlanga: He never needed the accolades. He was just proud of his wife, and that’s how he was with everyone in the family. Every year on your birthday card, he would tell you how proud he was of you. And he never let you forget. He was the leader of the free world, but he was proud of you and he wanted you to know it.
Smith: Every year the Betty Ford Center does an alumni weekend, and a lot of people come back. And he could be seen grilling hot dogs.
Berlanga: Exactly. He never let the fact that he was president effect who he was as a person. He did, he loved to grill. In Beaver Creek, we’d go out to the patio and he’d grill by the pool.
Berlanga: Yes. And I guess in the framework of people who think, “Well, your grandpa is a president,” I think people put it on you that it was special. And yes, you knew that it was special, but people put it on you. And you want to go, “But, yeah, he’s my grandpa and if you saw him, you’d say he was just like everybody else’s grandpa; just a really good grandpa and a really normal guy.” And I think the discrepancy of it is, he was supposed to be President of the United States, but he was just a guy who put on the apron and went and grilled out hamburgers in the backyard, and enjoyed it.
Smith: Was he a role model?
Berlanga: Oh, absolutely. I think between the two of them you are kind of intimidated by what you have to live up to. But I think what I derived from them the most is putting family first. Being there for my kids, telling my kids how proud I am of them. Giving them every opportunity that they can have because that’s what they did for Mom and that’s what they did for us. It’s to really make sure we had a chance to excel and to thrive and to live the life we wanted to.
Smith: A couple of quick things and we’ll let you go. I wondered about the whole Chevy Chase thing – the whole notion of a clumsy…Given his athletic background and everything, did he ever say anything?
Berlanga: No. He always got a chuckle out of it. I think Grandpa could laugh at himself. Grandma didn’t ever say anything about it, but I can imagine that it might have ticked her off a little bit. Because it’s kind of like, I could say something about my husband, but don’t you say something about my husband. They’ll give each other a hard time. Grandma will turn over to Grandpa and be like, “Jerry, put your napkin in your lap.” But if anyone else were to tell Grandpa to put his napkin…you’d get the look of death, “Don’t you tell that to my husband.” Grandma never said anything, but I can imagine that…She can laugh at a good joke, but I’m sure she probably doesn’t like people poking fun at her husband.
Smith: And the movies, we were told by someone, she left an hour before Titanic ended. They went to see Titanic.
Smith: But she didn’t want to see the ship sink.
Berlanga: Ohhh, Grandma. That’s such a romantic notion.
Smith: But then a wonderful story, I don’t remember what the movie was, some Matthew McConaughey kind of romance or something, and the President came back and told everyone in the office, you’ll really like this movie, it’s a chick flick.
Berlanga: Did he really?
Smith: It seems very incongruous, the phrasing coming from him.
Berlanga: They loved going to the movies. They loved watching movies; they loved doing all that stuff.
Smith: Did they watch old movies as well?
Berlanga: Yeah, they’d watch old movies, and they loved reading, too. That was something, I think, that really they instilled in us. They loved reading, they loved reading good books and we’re all readers now.
Smith: That’s great.
Berlanga: I think that’s something we grew up seeing and we’d all talk about the books we were reading and what’s good. Grandpa always tended towards more historical novels and stuff, but Grandma loves a good book. It could be a softy book, it could be a mystery. Grandma loves a good book. And so every now and then I say, “Grandma, have you read this? You should really go pick this book up.”
Smith: Does she still read?
Berlanga: She does. She does as much as she can.
Smith: Her eyesight is not a problem?
Berlanga: No. She’s good. And I think we started getting her on audio tapes, too.
Berlanga: I can’t imagine having all the time and not reading. And she still, like Grandpa, reads the paper every morning. And the paper is sitting there, waiting for her, when she gets her breakfast. It’s reassuring. I think the day there’s not a newspaper on Grandma and Grandpa’s table will be a sad day.
Smith: He was a voracious newspaper reader.
Berlanga: Yes. And I think he appreciated – like having Tom Brokaw, but before Hugh Sidey passed away, I think he appreciated a real journalist and recognized their position – their relevance in what he was doing and to the world. That’s why we have the journalism award. He appreciated a good journalist. They are hard to come by these days.
Smith: It’s even harder to come by a president in the modern era that appreciates journalists and regards them as friends.
Berlanga: Yes, exactly.
Smith: That’s rare.
Smith: This has been wonderful.