Jon Musgrave was only 14 when he had the opportunity to meet Former President Gerald Ford at his parents' house in Mount Vernon. Ford, who was 93, died Tuesday at his home in California. Musgrave still recalls his 1984 meeting with Ford, who was in town to rally support for Republican Randy Patchett.
Patchett was running against Democrat Ken Gray for the open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Musgrave said he knew who Ford was because he was the first president he remembered in his life.
"I knew a little bit about him," he said.
After the rally, a fundraiser was held at Olie and Betty Musgrave's new house in Mount Vernon. Olie Musgrave, president of First Bank and Trust, was a friend of Patchett's, Jon said.
It was an event Jon said he won't soon forget, namely because the then-14-year-old had his picture snapped with the man who took office upon Nixon's resignation under the Watergate scandal.
"It didn't really matter the politics," Musgrave said. "He just did the whole circuit, shaking hands with everybody."
It is that same unassuming demeanor that made Ford a president, who in more recent years, has been recognized as a man of integrity.
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"He is a president who has looked better as the years have gone by," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIUC.
Ford's visits to Southern Illinois were few, but he made three important stops. According to The Southern Illinoisan archives, Ford made a campaign stop at Williamson County Airport in 1976. In 1984 he stopped in Mount Vernon to campaign for Patchett, even though he served several years in the House of Representatives with Gray.
Then, in 1986, Patchett again fought for the seat and Ford visited Harrisburg.
"What this district deserves is new leadership, not the tired, old pork-barrel politics of Ken Gray," Ford said at that event.
Lawrence said it's hard to assess the impact Ford had on future presidents.
"I'd like to say all presidents have demonstrated the same candor and courage President Ford displayed," he said.
Only a month after taking office, Ford pardoned Nixon - a decision that many say cost him his re-election bid to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Lawrence will say that as a journalist working at the statehouse bureau in Springfield at the time, he was one of those who didn't believe it was the right thing to do.
"Nixon had deeply divided the country. He made a very courageous decision," Lawrence said of Ford. "I was always among those that didn't think it was a courageous decision. It wasn't popular at the time, but it proved to be the right decision."
Lawrence noted that Ford's press secretary, Jerry terHorst, resigned in protest.
"Myself and others concluded it was the right decision only after several years went by," Lawrence said.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, and Congressman Jerry Costello all issued statements containing much of the same opinion.
"In Gerald Ford, America got the right man at the right time," Topinka's statement read. "We were lucky."
Blagojevich noted Ford's rise to power in difficult circumstances.
"With honesty and integrity, President Ford emphasized cooperation and helped restore the public's confidence in its government," the statement said.
"His overwhelming decency and steady hand restored trust to the Office of the President, even while he made many difficult decisions," Costello said.
State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, who once taught American government and history at Okawville High School, said Ford left a lasting memory during a difficult time in America's history.
"I think his legacy will be the fact that he restored faith in government," Luechtefeld said.
Musgrave, who had the opportunity to have his photograph taken with Ford, summed his personality up best.
"It was just very positive and congenial," Musgrave said. "There was no arrogance; it was just, 'Hi, I'm Gerald Ford.'"
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