It was a friendship that began with an invitation. President Gerald Ford was invited to visit Notre Dame in 1975 by University President Father Theodore Hesburgh. He was asked to do something no Commander in Chief had done in 10 years, visit the campus of an American university despite the social unrest of the Vietnam War.
“I said to the audience, ‘I’d like to introduce the President of the United States’. He asked me if he'd be welcome here and I said he would be welcome as the flowers in May,” recalls Father Hesburgh. “I said ‘Mr. President’ and he stood up and the crowd got on their feet and they cheered for 15 minutes. He turned to me and said ‘I haven't had a welcome like that in a long time’.”
The University of Notre Dame awarded Ford an honorary law degree. The President shook so many hands that day that his cuff links kept coming undone. “I said, ‘Mr. President all day long you've been losing your cuff links,’” Hesburgh remembers. “They were beautiful embossed White House Presidential cuff links and I said, ‘I got you a pair of Notre Dame cuff links. They really work.' He said, 'put them on me’. He looked at me and said ‘that's a great change...you can keep mine,’ and to this day I have the Presidential cuff links as a remembrance of his visit here.”
Father Hesburgh worked with President Ford to restore citizenship to thousands of young Americans who had fled the country during Vietnam or were dishonorably discharged from the military during that controversial war. Hesburgh also joined Ford in a "think tank" that brought aid to the starving nation of Pakistan.
"Gerry", as Father Hesburgh called Ford, was a gracious man with an equally gracious wife. “When she (Betty) had a drinking problem and she quit like that Gerry said, "if she's going to do it, I'm going to do it with her,” says Hesburgh. “He quit at the same time. That's the kind of husbandly dedication that you don't see all that often.”
“I'm sure the good Lord will be good to him in eternity for the wonderful, beautiful things he did on Earth. He reunited a nation that was badly divided when he became President.” Father Hesburgh is confident he'll see his friend, Gerry, again someday. He hopes it will be in heaven.