It’s a new day at Gerald Ford museum

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Construction noise punctuates the air — the whine of drills, an occasional unidentified “ca-thud” on walls.

Susan Ford is touring the nearly completed $15 million remake of the museum honoring her father, President Gerald R. Ford. The museum closed in October for renovations, and once it reopens early next month, will feature new exhibits and a learning center.

Ford is the only person not wearing a hard hat. Behind her on a table is a leather football helmet worn by her father at the University of Michigan.

Her face is firm. There is no smile.

“I hate politics,” says Ford, 58, who says she is impressed by the extensive renovations of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, but not by all the reasons it exists.

As if to emphasize the point, she repeats, “I hate politics.”

Asked her thoughts on leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump? Silence. Asked for whom she intended to vote? Silence. Told her silence is itself a statement, she smiles lightly.

“It took my father away,” Ford says about her father not being at home much.

“My father to me was the champion of bipartisanship. I think he would be very confused by the state of the party,” Ford said. “I’m not going to comment on it. That’s politics.”

The statement is perhaps odd, coming from the youngest child and only daughter of the country’s unexpected leader.

Ford became president upon Richard Nixon’s Watergate-inspired resignation in August 1974, the first person to have served without being elected as vice president and president of the United States.

Ford — a congressman from Grand Rapids valued less for any signature legislation than his ability to carve party consensus — ascended after Nixon’s resignation to become the country’s 38th president.

The pardon is largely credited by historians as an act of political bravery and integrity that helped heal the nation.

Ford’s presidency, and his life, is the focus of the renovation and expansion of the 36-year-old triangular edifice on the west bank of the Grand River. During a tour this week, bright orange traffic cones and red work ladders scatter around much of the area.

This is the 13,000-square-foot museum’s second renovation. It was dedicated in September 1981 and updated in 1996. Steven Ford, then chairman of the Ford Foundation, was instrumental in raising money for the upgrade.

In perhaps its most popular event, “Humor and the Presidency” in 1986, comedian Bob Hope served as master of ceremonies and actor Chevy Chase mimicked Ford’s pratfalls. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Ford’s sparring partner during the day and golf partner after work, held court.

Tickets can be purchased for a pre-opening gala June 6 at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids. While names aren’t being revealed, museum officials say some members of Ford’s Cabinet are expected to attend.

More than $15 million in private funds have been raised to build the learning center and update exhibits.

The newest incarnation features more interactive and educational opportunities. Among them:

■A situation room with a touch-screen glass table highlights visitors on foreign hot spots of the day. Visitors can also plan out their own state dinner and presidential gala.

■The Oval Office: Redesigned to keep the authenticity, but provide better access for the public from the front and rear of the exhibit. It is considered one of the most authentic replications in the United States, museum curator Don Holloway said.

■A ceiling-high reproduction of a newspaper front-page blares: “Ford Grants Nixon Full Pardon, Says He Has Suffered Enough.”

Then, there is the nearly 8,000-square-foot DeVos Learning Center. The “field trip destination” with three K-12 classrooms teaches curricula inspired by Ford’s life, said Clare Shubert, newly hired director of engagement and programming.

The lessons include Willis Ward, who was Ford’s roommate on the non-illustrious University of Michigan football team in 1934. It was the Jim Crow years. Georgia Tech University insisted Ward, the star tight end, be benched. Ford threatened to quit the team; Ward begged him to play, noting the team’s poor start.

Ford was furious, agreeing to play only after Ward asked him to. The Wolverines won the game, but no others that season.

“When my dad’s teammate told me the story, he said, ‘Son, do you know what respect is?’ ” son Steven Ford recalled many years later. “He said, ‘Respect is what you do when nobody’s watching. And nobody was watching your dad as a young kid at the University of Michigan.’ ”

Susan Ford echoed similar sentiments. She is wearing red, white and blue not far from the giant newspaper reproduction.

Says, Ford, “When my father stood at the feet of God, (I believe he could say). ‘I did the right thing.’ ”

John Barnes is a freelance writer from west Michigan

If you go

Address: 303 Pearl St. NW

Reopening: Closed until June 7, admission is free

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Admission: $7 for adults, $6 for senior citizens and military members, $5 for college students with ID, $3 for ages 6-18, free for children under 5

Parking: Free