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Ford remembered in Buffalo area as 'the right person at the right time' Political visits to WNY spanned his years from congressman to GOP elder statesman

It was Oct. 31, 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford breezed into Buffalo for a last-minute campaign stop, his Election Day matchup against Jimmy Carter less than 48 hours away.

Ford attended Sunday Mass in St. Stanislaus Catholic Church on Townsend Street, where parishioners applauded and stood as the president walked down the aisle to take a seat in the third-row pew.

Later that morning, he drew a crowd of more than 2,000 supporters at the Statler. "We've got the momentum going," he told the crowd at the hotel. "With our movement, I think on behalf of Betty and myself, I can invite you all to Washington Jan. 20 for a great inauguration."

It wouldn't be Ford's inauguration.

But his death Tuesday at age 93 reminded people of the importance of his 2 1/2 years in the White House, from 1974 to 1977, after the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

"I don't think he'll be remembered as a particularly inspiring president, but I don't think that's what the time called for," said James E. Campbell, chairman of the University at Buffalo political science department. "I think he'll be remembered as a president who helped get the country through a very turbulent time. He was the right person at the right time."

Ford visited Western New York several times, from his days as a Michigan congressman until long after his presidency.

As vice president -- picked by Nixon in 1973 to replace the disgraced Spiro T. Agnew -- Ford stopped in Buffalo to speak at a Republican fundraising event in May 1974, while Congress was considering whether to impeach Nixon. During a news conference in Buffalo, Ford spoke confidently that Nixon would not resign or be impeached.

"I can infer from what he told me previously that he has no intention of resigning," Ford said.

Three months later, the president resigned because of the Watergate scandal, and Ford took over as the 38th president minutes after Nixon flew off into exile.

His pardoning of Nixon for all crimes he committed as president was controversial and helped lead to his defeat by Carter. But Ford in later years won praise for his action from both Republicans and Democrats, who believed that the pardon was necessary for the country to move past the scandal, Campbell said.

One of those Democrats is retired Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda. "I think that act more than any other lost him the election of 1976," LaFalce said Wednesday, "but it certainly gave him great esteem in my mind and cast in stone his character and his legacy as 'The Great Healer.' "

LaFalce -- who was a freshman congressman in 1975, when he was invited to breakfast with Ford at the White House -- said Ford tried to heal the nation in other ways, too.

The Vietnam War, which bitterly divided the nation, ended during his presidency, and Ford pressed for leniency toward people who had evaded the draft, LaFalce said.

"He had a recession that he had to deal with, too, and proposed a significant amount of public works, for which Buffalo and Niagara Falls got a great amount of money," LaFalce said.

Ford was very natural, straightforward and about as bipartisan as a president could be, LaFalce said. He was unfairly portrayed as clumsy, or not being too bright, LaFalce and Campbell said.

"Nonsense," LaFalce said. "He not only went to Yale Law School, but came in the top quarter of his class at Yale. And he was probably one of the most athletic persons who held the office of the president. He was a football player and golfer. He was a tremendous athlete."

After his presidency, Ford visited the Buffalo area from time to time for different events, whether it was for a University at Buffalo lecture series in 1988 or stumping for Republican candidates such as then-Rep. Bill Paxon of Amherst in 1992.

"President Ford made the tough decisions necessary to move the nation beyond Watergate," said Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski. "Perhaps most importantly, President Ford set an example for the nation by reminding people that there is a place in government and public service for honest, smart and hardworking people."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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