The history and legacy of the Betty Ford Center

Betty Ford in 1996 at her husband's funeral
Betty Ford in 1996 at her husband's funeral

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A memorial service for former First Lady Betty Ford will be held Tuesday afternoon at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert. She and late President Gerald Ford worshipped there after he left office in 1977. Betty Ford died Friday at the age of 93.

While she was First Lady, Betty Ford championed breast cancer awareness, abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. But she also endured a very public battle with addiction to alcohol and pain killers.

The Betty Ford Center was founded in October 1982. Ford expected that the center would be a Southern California center, according to John Schwarzlose, the CEO of Betty Ford Center.

He says Ford "really underestimated the demand, the impact [of the center], because of her, and everything she stood for as a woman. That we'd be worldwide. And that today, 29 years later, we're the best known addiction center in the entire world, was something that really overwhelmed Mrs. Ford."

Schwarzlose says Ford would run into former patients, who would flock to her. "They would say, 'Betty, thank you so much for giving me this chance, for letting me build this new life.' And Mrs. Ford would look at every one of them, right into their eyes, and say, 'You're the one that did it. You did it.'"

While she was mired in problems of addiction, Ford's family held an intervention for her in 1978. "It was actually April Fools Day. Mrs. Ford – years later, she would joke about that. She'd say 'Yeah, the April Fools joke was on me!,'" Schwarzlose says.

She went for treatment to Long Beach Naval Hospital, a hospital that was mostly filled with sailors from the Navy who had trouble with drugs and alcohol. But Schwarzlose says women who had been in the 12-step program for a long time took Ford under her wing.

Ford never regretted her sobriety, says Schwarzlose. She and her husband, Former President Gerald Ford, lobbied the California legislature to pass a new law creating an addiction hospital. The law passed and was signed into law, and work began on the Betty Ford Center.

"Then the question was asked of Mrs. Ford, would you agree to put your name on it? And she said, 'Absolutely not. I've only been clean and sober myself for a little over three years. And, you know, if I put my name on it, what if I take a drink?' And President Ford at the end was the one that finally convinced her. 'If you do put your name on it, it will be like a beacon to say to people, this is a safe place to go.'"

Betty Ford agreed to put her name on the center, but her reluctance is, according to Schwarzlose, the reason why there's only one Betty Ford Center.

Audio: KPCC's Steve Julian talks with John Schwarzlose, CEO of the Betty Ford Center, who knew Ford well.