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Betty Ford family leaves for Michigan following huge Calif. tribute to the former first lady
PALM DESERT, California (AP) ' Thousands of well-wishers from seniors to toddlers waved, offered crisp salutes or held their hands over their hearts in a sometimes tearful tribute to Betty Ford, as a motorcade carrying her body zigzagged from a California desert church to Palm Springs airport for her final flight home to Michigan.
The black Cadillac hearse was escorted by nearly a dozen California Highway Patrol cars and other vehicles during the 25-minute trip to the airport, where Ford's mahogany casket, covered in flowers, was placed aboard an Air Force jet sometimes used by Vice President Joe Biden.
Shortly after 10 a.m. the plane, also carrying Ford's family, departed on the four-hour flight to Grand Rapids, Mich., where the former first lady was to be laid to rest Thursday next to her late husband President Gerald R. Ford at his presidential museum.
During the trip to the airport, which took the hearse through Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and other desert resort cities, people lined the streets and hoisted American flags to say goodbye to the beloved former first lady, who died Friday at age 93. Some wiped tears from their eyes.
The motorcade left from St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, where 800 people, including former President George W. Bush and first lady Michelle Obama had gathered Tuesday for a memorial service.
After another memorial Thursday in Grand Rapids, Ford is to be buried at her husband's presidential museum. Gerald Ford died in 2006.
Following Tuesday's service, the public was invited into the church to pay respects to Ford, and thousands dropped by.
"The family was overwhelmed with the number of people," family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said. "They are so heartfelt and grateful."
Thousands more turned out for Wednesday's motorcade, including people who sat along the route in beach chairs, some shirtless in the warm, sunny weather.
A dozen senior citizens seated in wheelchairs held up a sign reading "Monterey Palms Healthcare" as the hearse passed by. In front of Rancho Mirage Fire Station No. 1, firefighters stood outside, with emergency lights blinking on their vehicles.
A woman on a golf course stopped her cart and held her hand over her heart, while people nearby shouted "Thank you, Betty." Many clapped and stood at attention.
During Tuesday's service, former first lady Rosalynn Carter and journalist Cokie Roberts, among others, hailed Ford as a force of nature whose boundless energy and enthusiasm, coupled with a steadfast determination to do what was right, pushed the country toward a commitment to equal rights for women and other causes.
Ford, the accidental first lady, was thrust into the White House when Richard Nixon resigned as president on Aug. 9, 1974, and her husband, then vice president, assumed the nation's highest office. Although she always said she never expected nor wanted to be first lady, she quickly embraced the role.
Her candidness, unheard of at the time, helped bring such previously taboo subjects as breast cancer into the public discussion as she openly discussed her own battle with the disease. She was equally outspoken about her struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and her spearheading of the creation of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage to treat those diseases has benefited thousands.
"Millions of women are in her debt today and she was never afraid to speak the truth even about the most sensitive subjects, including her own struggle with alcohol and pain killers," Carter said. "She got some criticism, but I thought she was wonderful and her honesty gave to others every single day."
Behind the scenes she was also aggressive and effective, said Roberts, who noted that Ford's late husband confided to her privately that his wife badgered him relentlessly into stronger public support of equal rights for women.
The former first lady mapped out plans for her funeral well in advance, including who would deliver her eulogies, and Roberts said she told her to be sure to let people know that politics does not have to as acrimonious as it is today.
Other mourners who packed the church included former California first lady Maria Shriver, former California Gov. Pete Wilson and Ford's four children. Former first lady Barbara Bush is expected to attend Thursday's service in Michigan.
Jeff Wilson reported from Palm Springs and John Rogers reported from Los Angeles.