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First ladys courage inspired others through difficult journeys
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I love a good story. The ones I love best are so wonderfully worded and descriptive that your mind paints a vivid image.

John Vardeman, who is a fine wordsmith, told me a story a few years ago involving former first lady Betty Ford.

Vardeman, then a 20-year-old rising senior at the University of Georgia, had been recruited by the journalism school dean to be an intern on what was "a top secret" project.

The project was working on the memoirs of former President Gerald Ford.

In a rather quick turn of events, Vardeman found himself at the other end of the United States at the door of the Ford's home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

"You must be John Vardeman," said Betty Ford to the budding journalist. "We've heard so much about you."

Vardeman was taken aback that the former first lady not only welcomed him into the house, but already knew about him.

My favorite part of the story involves the call of nature. When John asked to use the bathroom, Betty Ford walked him in. "You have to jiggle the handle," she said in explaining the need for additional attention to the toilet.

"I thought they might have butlers to flush the toilets," Vardeman said.

I liked the story so much that I used it in a column right after President Ford's death in 2006. Today, I dust it off one last time in remembrance of Betty Ford.

As first ladies go, Betty Ford was a trailblazer. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she used the illness as a platform to encourage thousands of American women to get mammograms and perform self-examination.

This was at a time when it was almost taboo to mention such things in polite company.

After an intervention by her family, she sought treatment for her dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs. She was so inspired by her newfound sobriety that she raised money to start the Betty Ford Center, one of the best known rehabilitation hospitals in the world.

She opened the door for persons with dependency problems to talk about their addiction and seek help. Prior to her work, seeking treatment was a secret that few would discuss. She appeared on national television and told the public that she was a recovering alcoholic, not exactly the kind of thing first ladies are known for.

Ford became an advocate for breast cancer and addiction because she had the unique ability to speak about them from a firsthand experience. It made others understand that it was OK and that there are others who have walked in their shoes.

As a young woman, Ford wanted to become a dancer and went to New York, where she performed at Carnegie Hall with the Martha Graham troupe. She came home to Grand Rapids, Mich., and was smitten by a young man named Gerald Ford, who was about to go to Congress.

It turned out that Ford's greatest dance was the dance of life. She showed many people that despite the occasional stumble, the dance goes on.

She served one of the shortest stints as first lady, but she left an indelible imprint on the national stage that will be there for years to come.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on

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