January 3, 2007 at 1:00 am

Family shows dignity, grace

WASHINGTON -- When former Michigan congressman William Broomfield was recuperating at the hospital after collapsing Saturday at President Ford's memorial service in the U.S. Capitol, he learned that a worried friend had called to check on him: Betty Ford.

"They tried to connect her to me, but there was trouble with the phones -- they close the incoming calls off at 10 (p.m.). But Mrs. Ford herself called," said Broomfield, 84, who was released the next morning after his spell briefly disrupted the funeral procession.

"I was very pleased and touched. That's just how she is," added the longtime Ford family friend.

Over the past few days, Americans have watched the Ford family display warmth, grace and class -- and remembered why the Michigan family touched hearts after the cold Nixon years.

In the Capitol on Sunday and Monday, for example, the Ford children and grandchildren shook hands and spoke with visitors who came to bid farewell at Ford's flag-draped casket.

"That was singular," said John Robert Greene, who wrote a 2004 autobiography of Betty Ford. "It turned the Capitol Rotunda into a Grand Rapids funeral parlor. It was stunning in its simplicity."

But Broomfield and other friends say they haven't been surprised by such acts of accessibility and generosity. The Ford family has always been refreshingly different, they said.

In 1974, the Fords were open when Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer, a huge step that spurred women to have checkups and breast cancer survivors to not feel ashamed.

And she tackled controversial issues that American families were grappling with, talking freely about such hot topics as premarital sex and marijuana. She even disclosed that she and her husband slept in the same bed in the White House -- a first for a first lady.

Later, after the family intervened in 1978 to force her to look at her addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol, they again went public.

The former first lady opened the Betty Ford Clinic in 1982, which helped reduce the stigma of addiction, even giving recovery a bit of a glitz through Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, who sought treatment there.

Greene said her openness made her the most important first lady since World War II.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, who served with Gerald Ford in the U.S. House for 17 years, said Betty Ford "has such a capacity, a gift for taking events that were very bad (cancer, addiction) and using them for the public good

"She whipped her addiction. And people admired her for it. And the same for how she handled cancer. She's a shining example."

Friends say the Ford family gift of empathy will now help get Mrs. Ford through the loss of her soul mate of 58 years.

"I don't see her drawing into a shell," said Jerry terHorst, a Ford family friend.

"That wouldn't be the Betty Ford I know. She'll continue to be a strong voice for the issues she cares about."

You can reach Deb Price at dprice@detnews.com">dprice@detnews.com or (202) 662-8736.