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Thousands in Calif. Pay Respects to Ford

Waiting in line up to three hours, thousands paid their final respects to former President Gerald Ford, filing through the church where the man had prayed since retiring from public life.
( [email protected] ) Dec 30, 2006 01:47 PM EST

PALM DESERT, Calif. (AP) - Waiting in line up to three hours, thousands paid their final respects to former President Gerald Ford, filing through the church where the man many credit with healing a troubled nation had prayed since retiring from public life.

Beginning Friday and continuing into the wee hours of Saturday morning, buses brought people to St. Margaret's Episcopal Church from a gathering point at a tennis center five miles away. Mourners ranging from children to the elderly walked through quickly and then reboarded their buses — a process taking less than two minutes.

"It's so moving, especially with someone like Ford, who had such an important place in history," said Michelle Dhami, who came with her two young children.

Ford was to lie in repose for public viewing of the closed casket until late Saturday morning, when former first lady Betty Ford was to board a Boeing 747 and accompany her husband's body to Washington. Two services were planned in Washington, and Ford was to be buried in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Jan. 3.

Ford died Tuesday at age 93. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal, but was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.

He was a Republican congressman from Michigan when Nixon named him vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973.

Ford's pardon of Nixon not long after taking office sparked intense criticism, but with time many Americans have come to see Ford's decision as courageous and one that helped heal a nation fatigued from Watergate and the Vietnam War.

Six days of national mourning began Friday with military honors and a simple family prayer service at St. Margaret's, where the Ford family has worshipped for 30 years.

Betty Ford and her children watched as uniformed enlisted men from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines carried Ford's flag-draped casket.

A Marine Corps band played the hymn "O God Our Help in Ages Past" and a sailor honored Ford's Navy service by carrying an ebony staff flying the presidential seal.

"We receive the body of our brother, Gerald, for burial," the Rev. Robert Certain, church rector, said as the casket was carried inside. It was then placed before the blond-wood altar decorated with wreaths of white flowers.

The private family service was followed by a visitation for invited friends, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former New York Congressman Jack Kemp and former California Gov. Pete Wilson. When it ended, Mrs. Ford left in a motorcade headed back to her home in the neighboring city of Rancho Mirage.

Several men stopped and snapped salutes. One woman wore a red, white and blue scarf.

A modest early turnout at the staging area grew through the evening. No official count was kept, but buses carrying about 50 people per trip came and went steadily. The trip took about three hours by late Friday.

"You wait all that time for just one minute, but it's historic and you just can't not go," said Pam Veith, 45, of Cathedral City.

Earlier Friday, a motorcade brought Ford's casket and family to the church. Local police saluted and residents of the desert resort region watched silently as it passed.

"It's such a historical event, especially to see this in your own town," said Jeanine Lee, 60. "This is really the end of an era. Nixon is gone. Sinatra is gone. Bob Hope. And now Ford."

Among the spectators was Evelyn Tidholm, 80, a visitor from Oklahoma who said she voted for Ford in 1976.

"I just have never seen anything like this. I thought that at my age it's something that I should see," she said.

Associated Press Writers Allison Hoffman and Brooke Donald in Palm Desert and Laurie Kellman in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

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