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Betty Ford's legacy: Candor and inspiration

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Rosalynn Carter and Lynne Cheney will be among those eulogizing Ford
  • The Ford family says to know her was to know a "truly great lady"
  • Singer Stevie Nicks: "If it were not for you, Betty Ford, I would be dead"
  • The widow of Gerald Ford was an advocate for substance abuse treatment

(CNN) -- Betty Ford conquered her own addiction to help save the lives of others, a legacy that her family said Saturday tempered a loss that left a deep void.

"Mother's love, candor, devotion and laughter enriched our lives and the lives of the millions she touched," the family said Saturday in a written statement. "To be in her presence was to know the warmth of a truly great lady."

Ford, a former first lady and co-founder of an eponymous addiction center in California, died Friday at the Eisenhower Medical Center Friday evening, according to Matt McLogan, a spokesman with the Gerald R. Ford Foundation. She was 93.

She will be remembered in two funeral services -- the first on Tuesday in Palm Desert, California, and the second Thursday afternoon in Grand Rapids, Michigan -- said Gregory Willard, Gerald Ford's personal attorney and a family representative.

Her eulogists will include Rosalynn Carter, the wife of the man who beat her husband in 1976 to become president, and Lynne Cheney, whose husband Dick Cheney was Ford's deputy chief of staff in the White House and years later became vice president.

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James Cannon, who was an aide in the Ford administration and wrote a biography on the president, called the first lady a model political wife.

"No finer tribute could have been made than the one by her husband who said, and I quote, 'When the final tally is taken, her contribution to our country will be bigger than mine,' " Cannon said.

Gerald Ford died in December 2006. He was also 93.

In Ford's hometown of Grand Rapids, the Gerald Ford presidential museum closed Saturday for a week. The lobby, however, will remain open 24 hours to allow people to sign a condolence book.

Condolences began pouring in soon after news broke about Betty Ford's death -- including from celebrities who sought treatment at her namesake treatment center.

Stevie Nicks, the lead singer for Fleetwood Mac, said when she entered the Betty Ford Center in 1985 for cocaine addiction, the first lady shared her own troubles.

"That really, really made my need to actually fix myself even stronger because when you see somebody that's done it, and you're not nearly as famous as she is, no matter what, it changes you," Nicks said.

The treatment was not easy. But two weeks in, Nicks felt a change within.

"As far as I'm concerned, Betty Ford saved my life," she said.

Years later, Nicks returned to the clinic to share how she continues to overcome addiction. She was surprised to see the first lady there.

"I told her that night, if it were not for you Betty Ford, I would be dead," the singer said.

A host of celebrities from Elizabeth Taylor to Lindsay Lohan have checked into the Betty Ford Center over the years.

"Betty Ford took a risk at one of the worst times of her life and came forward to share a message of recovery in order to serve others," said Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler, who recently revealed his own treatment for drugs.

"Her vision, passion and amazing heart led to the Betty Ford Center, the gold standard of treatment facilities," he said. "She will be missed, but her work in recovery will live on."

Betty Ford made headlines soon after becoming first lady in 1974, holding news conferences and publicly discussing her diagnosis with breast cancer.

She spoke candidly about hot-button issues like abortion, premarital sex and equal rights in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" in 1975 -- the same year Newsweek named her "Woman of the Year."

Her frankness initially drew some criticism, but soon, 75% of Americans approved of her in public opinion polls, according to the Ford library and museum's website.

But in 1978, just over a year after leaving the White House, Ford made headlines of a different sort. Confronted by her family about her alcohol and prescription painkiller abuse, she entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital to seek treatment.

That same year, she published the first of two autobiographies, titled "The Times of My Life."

Ford would go on to become a high-profile example of substance abuse issues and was a tireless advocate for drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment.

"My addiction was a combination of alcohol and the prescription drugs that ... both were a part of my life, but they did not become a problem until they overrode my common sense," Ford told CNN in 2003. "I didn't know what was happening, I just knew that I felt great and the pain was gone."

She wanted others to be rid of their pain as well, and in October 1982, she and friend Leonard Firestone opened the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. To this day, the center remains one of the most well-known and respected places nationwide for treatment of alcoholism and other drug dependencies.

Ford also fought to promote awareness and research on breast cancer, with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation eventually naming an award in her honor.

She earned numerous honors over her life, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 and the Congressional Gold Medal eight years later.

CNN's Denise Quan contributed to this report.

 
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