My name is Betty, and I’m …. an Episcopalian!

My first encounter with Betty Ford was in 1978 when I assisted at her daughter’s first wedding which was at old St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California where a young Fr. Bob Burton was Rector. The first three rows of the congregation were filed with more famous names and faces in the entertainment and political world than I had ever seen in my life in one place. Fr. Barnabas in the late 1980s was occasionally invited to the Ford and Leonard Firestone homes (they lived next door to each other) to fill in a place at the table at one of their dinner parties they jointly hosted.

The late Brad Hall, the rector who built the present St. Margaret’s building, who also filled in as a dinner guest on occasion, once told Barnabas, using Navy jargon, “I’m the duty priest, you’re the duty monk.” On one evening when the guests of honor were the King and Queen of Romania who were visiting the Coachella Valley, Barnabas brought home a van load filled with crates of fruits and vegetables presented to the Royals who that day had toured the local Sun World Fruit Company. Mrs. Firestone also gave Barnabas a large cake with a dessert lamb (It was just after Easter) on top from Mrs.’ Ford’s kitchen left over from the dinner. That weekend our brothers and retreat center guests ate well.

Following the funeral for Mrs. Elizabeth B. Ford
at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in
Palm Desert, CA, her body will be laid to rest
beside that of  her husband, President Gerald Ford,
 in Grand Rapids, MI

Betty Ford was a woman who not only talked the talk but always walked the walk to use a well known phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a great honor and joy for Fr. Barnabas and me to know her slightly and work as volunteer clergy at the Betty Ford Center from 1984 to 1992. Of course we also saw Mrs. Ford and her family at St. Margaret’s where they were members from the time they moved to Rancho Mirage California until her death July 8, 2011.

I had the blessing of being the Sunday Pastor at the Betty Ford Center during the years mentioned above and Barnabas gave lectures on Spirituality in the outpatient department there at that time. We both, along with many trained clergy in the area heard hundreds of Fifth Steps (life confessions) of patients at the Center.

Mrs. Ford was not only Chairman of the Board of the institution that bears her name but was a hands on participant in its program. She regularly shared with the patients about her recovery experience in scheduled lectures and answered their questions with the same candor that gained her national respect on other issues. In the early days of the Betty Ford Center her small office was off the reception area and you knew when she was present. Betty always had time to stop and have a word with one of the 27,000 people who have been there since she opened the facility in 1982.

Once, as I wrote about in an article in 2007 for our quarterly magazine the Society of St. Paul Order published, on a particular Thanksgiving morning when we were having a service in the non denominational “meditation room” a lovely contemporary chapel, she came in with her brother in law whom she was taking on a tour, no knowing a service was in progress. She was embarrassed and apologized, but we were all delighted by the surprise visitors. Our topic for Thanksgiving was “An Attitude of Gratitude” and Mrs. Ford responded with a bit of her own gratitude before wishing all a happy Thanksgiving.

In 1985, I got the idea for a Betty Ford Day at the General Convention of the Episcopal scheduled that summer at Anaheim, California. I talked it over with Dr. Joe Cruse, the Medical Director of the Center and he said he would bring it to Mrs. Ford. At the time I was President of the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas and worked with the then presiding bishop, The Rt. Rev. John Allin. I contacted him and he was positive about scheduling such a day. By the Grace of God, complex schedules were connected and Mrs. Ford addressed the House of Bishops as well as the House of Deputies and spoke at a special luncheon hosted by what today is called “Recovery Ministries” a national group in the church dedicated to educating clergy and church members about alcohol and drug addiction as a disease. She began each of her talks with the line, “Hi, my name is Betty and I am …..An Episcopalian!” much to the delight of her listeners. An Episcopalian she was. She and her husband, the late President were faithful members at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert and often brought their grand children and friends with them to the late service.

Fathers Andrew Rank and Barnabas Hunt have a word with Betty Ford at the 1985 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Anaheim, California where she received a special citation for publicly acknowledging her own addiction and her work establishing the Betty Ford Center for treating alcoholism.  The citation was presented to her by the presiding bishop, the Rt. Rev. John M. Allin.

As with breast cancer, Betty Ford more than any other person, brought alcoholism out of the closet of guilt shame and fear and into the living room of our homes. By her own courage and rigorous honesty we learned addiction is a treatable disease. She did this not once, but every day of her life from the first time she stood before the cameras to talk about her addiction. She not only talked about it, she did something, not only for herself but everyone else by starting the treatment center that bears her name, still one of the most reasonably price institutions of its kind in the United States.

But what I remember most about Betty Ford is something I also shared in the 2007 magazine article. Del and Meri-Bell Scharbutt. He was the famous radio announcer who wrote the Campbell Soup’s “mmmm good” commercial. They were the king and queen of AA in the Coachella Valley and our long time friends. Meri-Bell was dying of cancer and Barnabas and I wanted to visit and say prayers with her. It was nearly five o’clock and I called the Scharbutt home to see if it was ok to come by. A woman answered. She said, “Andrew, this is Betty. I’ve been here all day taking care of Meri-Bell and was just about to leave, but I will stay until you arrive.” It was Betty Ford. Meri-Bell was one of her closest friends. She met us at the door, gave us a brief update on her condition and left.

Betty Ford was one of those Christians who spent her life doing good deeds grounded in love. Most of them we will never know about. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

Canon Andrew Rank, SSP

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2 thoughts on “My name is Betty, and I’m …. an Episcopalian!”

  1. I have been a member of St. Margaret’s Church since 1981 and knew all of the people noted in your remembrance AND I worked at The Betty Ford Center for a number of years. Fr. Brad was a wonderful man and leader in the Church. He was generous of heart and spirit. My children even traipsed through the grounds while the church was being built, with Fr. Brad’s approval, of course. I have so many wonderful memories of the church in what is now Karns Hall and of our current beautiful church. Thank you for the memories!!


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