PALM DESERT, Calif. – Borne by eight U.S. servicemen in crisp dress uniforms, Gerald R. Ford's flag-draped casket was carried past his widow into their hometown church Friday for a public viewing that marked the start of six days of mourning for the former president.
Former first lady Betty Ford, 88, stood atop the broad steps of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church to receive the casket. A Marine Corps band struck up "Hail to the Chief" as the coffin of the Navy veteran of World War II was removed from a hearse, then played the hymn "O God Our Help in Ages Past" as the military pallbearers, moving in lockstep, made the slow climb to the doors of the white-columned church.
"We receive the body of our brother, Gerald, for burial," said the church rector, the Rev. Robert Certain.
Mrs. Ford, clutching the arm of an Army general, stood in silence for a few moments after the casket was laid before a blond-wood altar and three wreaths of white flowers. Then she led other family members to the Presidents Pew, where she and her husband sat nearly every Sunday after leaving the White House in 1977.
A private family service was followed by a visitation for invited friends, including former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Rep. Jack Kemp. When it ended, Mrs. Ford left in a motorcade to return to the Ford home in the neighboring city of Rancho Mirage.
A public viewing of Ford's closed casket was expected to draw thousands to the resort community 110 miles east of Los Angeles late Friday afternoon.
Earlier, a Boeing 747 from the presidential fleet descended in the distance toward Palm Springs airport as a motorcade brought Ford's casket and family to the church. As the procession passed, police saluted and residents of the desert resort community watched silently.
Mrs. Ford planned to accompany her husband's body across the country Saturday to Washington, where the nation's 38th president will lie in state at the Capitol. A funeral will be held on Tuesday at the National Cathedral. Ford will be buried on Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he grew up.
Security was tight at St. Margaret's, with helicopters hovering overhead. The Secret Service swept the area, and surrounding residential streets were blocked off.
A solemn crowd watched from well beyond the parking lot of the church, not far from the former president's Rancho Mirage home.
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.
Ford, who assumed the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal, died Tuesday at 93.
Mourners were to be shuttled to the church from a tennis center five miles away. Some arrived early, including a father and son from Irvine who showed up before dawn.
"I want to be president one day so anything presidential, I'm here" said Aaron Magness, a freshman at the University of Oklahoma.
He and his father, Jay Magness, arrived at 5 a.m. expecting the kind of turnout that occurred for former President Ronald Reagan's funeral in 2004. By midafternoon about 100 people were waiting.
Harvey Soldan, 51, of Riverside wore a Ford-Dole sticker on his shirt from his days as a 1976 campaign worker. He also had expected huge crowds.
"I sat and waited for Nixon, so this time I wanted to beat the crowds," he said.
The major stock markets will be closed on Tuesday as part of a national day of mourning. The Wall Street tradition dates to the 1885 burial of President Grant and was last observed after President Reagan's death in 2004.
Some of the most regal touches of a full state funeral are being bypassed, by request of his family and, most likely, according to Ford's own wishes. In Washington, a hearse rather than a horse-drawn caisson will take Ford's casket to the Capitol.
Fighter jets will do a flyover with a "missing man" formation only in Grand Rapids, where Ford will be buried on a hillside near his presidential museum. He spent most of his childhood in Grand Rapids, practiced law there and represented the area in Congress for 25 years.