Home of Betty Ford's rehab center absorbs loss of former first lady

Sunday, July 10, 2011
Associated Press filePresident Gerald Ford holds the hand of first lady Betty Ford on Oct. 3, 1974, during their visit at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington, D.C. Betty Ford, the former first lady whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts, has died at age 93.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Rancho Mirage was just a dot in a desert valley east of Los Angeles until Betty Ford put it on the map with a rehab center that treated a stream of Hollywood high-rollers and spiraling stars that spanned generations, from Elizabeth Taylor to Lindsay Lohan.

When Ford died Friday, she had outlived some of her most famous celebrity successes and saved the lives of many more, a legacy that inspired A-listers and average residents alike to pay tribute to a former first lady who left her mark -- and her name -- all over the city she made famous.

Ford died at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, the desert golf community where she settled with former president Gerald Ford after he left office more than three decades ago, family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said. She was 93.

She will be memorialized in both California's Coachella Valley, which includes Rancho Mirage, and Michigan this week as her casket travels by motorcade and military transport to be laid to rest alongside her husband in Grand Rapids.

In Rancho Mirage, residents were saddened by her death as they praised her devotion to removing the stigma from addiction. The Betty Ford Center treated more than 90,000 people since its beginnings in 1982 and although it was most famous for a string of celebrity patients, it kept its rates relatively affordable and provided a model for effective addiction treatment.

One of Ford's defining characteristics was her candor, and that included confronting her own addiction head-on. She revealed a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol 15 months after leaving the White House, and regularly welcomed new groups of patients to rehab with a speech that started, "Hello, my name's Betty Ford, and I'm an alcoholic and drug addict."

Turning lives around

Carol Pruter, 67, said she was proud that Betty Ford chose to set up her rehab center in Rancho Mirage and admired the former first lady's approach to life -- and to addiction. Much of the world was focused on the celebrities who came to the center, but Ford made a point of reaching out to average people too, Pruter said.

During treatment, patients live in seclusion at the center, which is surrounded by tall, lush hedges and accessed by a private lane guarded by a security checkpoint. The center distinguished itself from later iterations of rehabs that catered to the wealthy, ones that resembled spas more than an environment to honestly confront one's demons.

"She let people know that people who aren't well-known can get addictions too. It's not something for a certain part of society, it's not something to hide," Pruter said as she stopped by a local coffee shop in Saturday's 104-degree desert heat. "It's an illness that needs treatment."

"She changed so many of our lives with her courage and intelligence, her honesty and humility, and her deep grace," Ali McGraw, who was treated at the center in 1986, said. "Her vision impacted my own life as few people have."

"People who get well often say, 'You saved my life,' and 'You've turned my life around,"' Ford once said. "They don't realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves, and that's all."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: