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Nebraska-Born, Ford Left State As Infant

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

OMAHA, Neb. —  Gerald Ford was the only president born in Nebraska, but he lived in Omaha only a couple of weeks before his mother, fleeing an abusive marriage, left the state with her infant son.

Today a small park and historic conservation center, both named for Ford, mark the site of the president's birth, but the home where he was born burned down in 1971.

Ford's mother, the former Dorothy Gardner, married Leslie King Sr., a banker's son, on Sept. 7, 1912. The late president was born Leslie King Jr. on July 14, 1913, in the King family mansion in Omaha.

But two weeks after their son was born, the couple separated, according to the Web site for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum. She returned to her parents' home in Grand Rapids, Mich., and was granted a divorce in December 1913.

The Ford Birthsite Park and Gardens in south Omaha holds Ford memorabilia and marble panels listing all the U.S. presidents, Nebraska governors and Omaha mayors. On Wednesday, some visitors left flowers and candles there to honor the late president, and Rep. Lee Terry, who represents Omaha, hailed Ford's "modest, Midwestern values."

As president, Ford visited the park while it was under construction in May 1976, and he returned in 1980 to help dedicate a rose garden honoring his wife. Funds for the project came from James M. Paxson, an Omaha businessman.

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"We do a lot of weddings there," Brook Bench, park maintenance manager for the city, said earlier this year, adding the park's flower gardens and fountain are what draw couples to choose the site.

A small brick building is at the park, with a model of the house where Ford was born and a few mementos, and a larger exhibit in the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center on adjoining land. The conservation center, which preserves and repairs artifacts for the Nebraska State Historical Society, and park together occupy nearly half a city block.

But the Ford exhibit is relatively small compared with Ford's official collections in Grand Rapids, where the Ford museum is located, and Ann Arbor, Mich., site of the Ford presidential library.

"We're in no way interested in competing with his museum and library in Michigan," the conservation center's director, Julie Reilly, said.

The future president was eventually renamed for, and adopted by, his mother's second husband, Grand Rapids businessman Gerald R. Ford.

In his autobiography, "A Time to Heal," Ford remarked that a loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Nebraska presidential primary "really hurt, because Nebraska was the state of my birth."

And he briefly discussed his parents' unhappy union, saying, "Apparently, my parents quarreled all that time _ later, I heard that he hit her frequently." In an essay for the book and PBS series "Character Above All," former Ford aide James M. Cannon said Ford's mother quickly realized her outwardly charming first husband "was not only brutal, but a liar and a drunk."

Ford recalled that he finally met his biological father when he was a high school senior in Michigan, and that the elder King approached him as he was working in a restaurant. They had a "superficial" talk over lunch, and then King, who had failed to pay child support, handed him $25 and left, Ford said.

He said he was later consoled by his parents, but "nothing could erase the image" of King, "a carefree, well-to-do man who didn't really give a damn about the hopes and dreams of his firstborn son."


On the Net:

Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center:

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum:

(SUBS 4th graf, `The Ford...', to DELETE incorrect reference to library and museum in Ann Arbor. SUBS 9th graf, `But the..., to add that library is in Ann Arbor but museum is in Grand Rapids.)

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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