January 3, 2007 at 1:00 am

Grand Rapids greets Ford for final time

Thousands of people wait for hours to pay respects to ex-president and hometown hero.

GRAND RAPIDS -- President Gerald R. Ford made his final voyage home to Michigan on Tuesday, where tens of thousands waited for a glimpse of his flag-draped casket.

By 10:30 p.m. more than 20,000 mourners of all ages had filed into the DeVos Place Convention Center, from which people waited to be let in to the presidential museum across the Grand River, where the casket of the late president was on view.

The wait to get into the DeVos center stretched 12 city blocks. Mourners stood in line an average of four and half hours. Following a brief, private ceremony at the museum, including remarks by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, visitors were permitted into the ground floor area of the museum to pay their respects at the casket through the night. Officials were letting 1,000 mourners into the museum to file past the casket every half hour.

"Bless the soul of Gerald Ford with homecoming joy," said Heartwell, an ordained minister, at the ceremony.

Added Granholm: "Mr. President, welcome home to the city and state where your mother and stepfather baked into you some good Midwestern values We are proud to lay you down in the good Michigan earth, right here."

Earlier, the plane from the presidential fleet, tagged Air Force One when President Bush is on board, landed at 2:53 p.m. at the Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, the place Ford lived much of his life and represented for 26 years in Congress.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were among more than 50 family members, friends and dignitaries aboard the plane and took part in a 25-minute ceremony at the airport.

Carter defeated Ford in the 1976 presidential election, but they became close friends.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard was among officials who greeted the plane.

"The country hasn't had many presidents as special as this one," Bouchard said. Ford's body was transported seven miles in a 70-car motorcade from the airport to the presidential museum downtown.

Korean War veteran Howard Hamilton, 74, waited two hours to salute Ford's body as it made its way to the museum.

"He was an honorable man who believed more in the presidency and what's right than politics," said Hamilton, of Grand Rapids.

Vietnam vet Harold Hammer, 63, of Jenison brought his two nephews to watch the motorcade. "This is an opportunity to show honor and respect," he said. "This is a fellow Michigander who was humble, kind and smart. I want my nephews to think about who he was and try to emulate him."

Ford will be buried today in a tree-lined plot overlooking the Grand River, just north of the museum. He chose the site himself.

You can reach Mark Hornbeck at (517) 371-3660 or mhornbeck@detnews.com">mhornbeck@detnews.com.

Amid the sounds of the University of Michigan marching band, Gerald R. ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
Thousands of people line up Tuesday night to pay their respects to the ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)