PALM DESERT, Calif. - Staff at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church paused Wednesday to remember its most famous parishioner, former President Gerald R. Ford, as they prepared for a private family prayer service and public viewing at the church Friday.
"The last time I saw him he was weaker than I had ever seen him. His body was beginning to betray him but he still had that huge smile and that charisma," said the Rev. Daniel Rondeau, the church's associate rector, who saw Ford within the last two months.
Ford and his wife, former first lady Betty Ford, began worshipping at the church in 1977, and sat one row from the front in "The Presidents Pew," Rondeau said.
Several notables joined them over the years for services, Rondeau said, including former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and James A. Baker.
Despite the high-power company Ford kept, church volunteer Lori Meena, 43, remembered him as a humble man.
She said some years ago, Ford noticed her adopted daughter, Anise, during a special blessing for adopted children and the former president told her that he also had been adopted.
"Ever since then, every time he saw her, he'd make a special point to say hello and ruffle her hair," Meena said.
The Rev. Robert Certain, the pastor at St. Margaret's, told The (Palm Springs) Desert Sun that Mrs. Ford and their three sons were at Ford's bedside when he died. No local clergy were present, but one of Ford's sons is a minister and performed last rites, Certain told the newspaper.
"The family was present at the bedside," Certain said. "There was some emotion and sadness, but they were not unprepared."
On Saturday, Ford's body will be flown to Washington, D.C., for a state funeral.
Father Dan Rondeau walks inside of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2006. (Photo: AP/Chris Carlson)