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Hidden In Plain Sight: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Jan 13, 2020

To kick off our "Hidden in Plain Sight" series for 2020, we're highlighting the only U.S. Presidential Library in Michigan.  It's located right across the street from the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor.  89.1 WEMU's Jorge Avellan visited the library and has the story.


The 50,000 square-foot Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library opened in 1981.  It cost $4.3 million to build and pays tribute to the country’s 38th president; the only president from Michigan and one of five who never won a presidential election.  American flags hang from a 30-foot-high ceiling in the lobby, and slatted wooden panels on the walls give the large room a 1970’s feel.  Geir Gundersen is the supervisory archivist for the library.  We chatted about the library’s collection on the second floor of the facility. 

Geir Gundersen: We are in the research room of the library, so just off of our stacks area where we have our more than 25 million pages of documents from the Ford administration.  Also Gerald Ford’s Vice-Presidential period, his congressional period, as well as also collections of personal papers acquired by folks associated with the Fords over the course of their public service.

As part of a preservation process, the historic documents are stored in a climate controlled room and can only be accessed by a library employee.  But members of the public may request original documents that they can then read in the research room.  Gundersen says documents dealing with the Watergate scandal that led President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974 are popular among visitors.

Geir Gundersen: This is from the papers of Benton L. Becker who actually had a small role in the Nixon pardon.  He was a consultant who was brought in to actually go back and forth with Richard Nixon in California to help sort of negotiate his pardon acceptance statement.  So as part of his statement, he actually wrote up a memorandum about that experience and everything that entailed.  That’s really one of our most valuable documents and records of that process.

Gundersen then looks through other documents and finds a record of when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited China in October of 1975.  The purpose of that trip was to layout the groundwork for President Ford’s visit to China the following month; a year before he would lose the 1976 general election to President Jimmy Carter.   

Geir: This is a document that was formally classified at the top secret level and this has gone through the declassification process. 

Jorge: It says top secret on it. 

Geir: It does.  It’s crossed out because it’s no longer top secret but it’s also a document that was redacted or sanitized because there are still portions of this document that are still classified.  For example, here is a number of sentences that are actually blocked out.  So everything that you can read is unclassified. 

Jorge: What would that be you think? 

Geir: If I knew, I couldn’t tell you.  That’s a nice try.

Bill McNitt from Ann Arbor worked as an archivist for the library for over 30 years.  He was among the original employees.  Standing in the research room, he says it was an honor for him to preserve historical documents, especially since his father graduated from South High School in Grand Rapids with President Ford.   

Bill: That was pretty exciting.  We were seeing stuff that was only a couple of years old.  That first year, we were seeing stuff that had been in the White House six months previous. 

Jorge: Was that just bizarre to you? 

Bill: Yeah, especially going into the vault area there, we had to get control over all the classified materials.

The Ford Library is the only presidential library that is not attached to a presidential museum.  Gundersen explains why President Ford chose Grand Rapids for the location of his museum. 

Geir Gundersen: When Gerald Ford left office he received a proposal from his alma mater, from the University of Michigan, and a civic group in Grand Rapids, which is the community where he grew up and the area that he represented in congress for 25 years.  So instead of picking one proposal over the other, we like to think that he drew upon his congressional experience of bipartisanship and compromise, and actually went to each group and asked them if they had a choice, which part of the library and presidential museum would they like? 

While the primary focus of the Ann Arbor location is the presidential papers, visitors to the library can also see exhibits honoring former First Lady Betty Ford, President Ford’s time at the University of Michigan, and even original furniture from his office when he served in congress.  Over 15,000 people visit the Ford Presidential Library a year.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu