I'm a little behind the news cycle on this one, but didn't want Ford's passing to pass unmentioned.
I met Gerald Ford in 2001, at a resort north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My father had an annual conference to which spouses are invited, and my mom and I flew out to meet him. As it turned out, the resort was brand new and they were the first conference group to use the facilities. Simultaneously, former President Ford was at the hotel as part of the grand opening festivities.
We were told (I think by someone on the staff) that he was eating in the restaurant and, not wanting to miss an opportunity to catch a glimpse of an ex-president, we camped outside the restaurant for a while.
When there was no sign of Ford, we gave up and walked back into the lobby.
We were, as it turned out, followed very shortly by a few Secret Service agents, and then Ford himself appeared. He and his entourage walked up a set of stairs to a balcony overlooking the desert and stopped there. Here's where it got interesting.
My mom said "I dare you to go talk to him."
I said "Okay," and was off. Being young makes you fearless, I guess, since I walked up to the nearest Secret Service agent, pointed at Ford, and said "Can I talk to him for a minute?"
It was immediately apparent that the Secret Service is unaccustomed to answering that particular question. While the agent looked at me, quite puzzled, for a moment, I heard a young lady (in her 20s, I believe) say "Grandad, Grandad, this young man wants to talk to you," saw her grab him by the elbow and pull him over to me.
Here I am, a young-looking senior in high school, standing face to face with an ex-POTUS. Since I wasn't really expecting my query of the Secret Service to result in anything, I was a bit taken aback. But I recovered quickly.
I shook his hand (he had a standard, firm politician's handshake) and introduced myself. I knew that he had just received the Profiles In Courage award for pardoning Nixon, so congratulated him on that, and said something cheesy along the lines of how inspirational it is that he sacrificed his political career to do what was best for the nation.
He thanked me, and explained that he is always happy to meet intelligent young people with an eye for politics. A total politician's response, of course, but still a nice thing to say.
And, he did take a few moments out of his day to speak with me. He did not rush away (in fact, I said I had to get going before he did). He followed his granddaughter's lead and talked with me until I excused myself. He was kind and patient, and struck me as a very nice man. Maybe he was just a born politician, and the whole thing was an act—but I will always remember Gerald Ford that way, as the type of man who could quite easily ignore the "little people," but chooses to be selfless instead.
My prayers are with his family following this tough loss. He lived a long and full life, of which they should be proud, but it is never easy to lose a loved one.