Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Use of U-M blanket warms his heart

From The Grand Rapids Press, Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Grad sees memento used in Ford funeral
By Tom Rademacher (Press Columnist)

Mark Harmsen cherished for nearly 30 years the stadium blanket given to him by his parents upon his graduation in 1978 from the University of Michigan.

Yet it took only a phone call last Tuesday for him to part with it -- and with the bittersweet knowledge he would never hold it again.

The next day, Harmsen was surprised and overcome with emotion while watching live coverage of President Gerald R. Ford's funeral, to see his blanket folded on a pew and serving as a somber substitute for Bo Schembechler, the late U-M football coach who was invited to serve as one of Ford's honorary pallbearers.

In ensuing TV coverage, Harmsen was moved as well to see that Ford's widow, Betty, carried the maize and blue blanket on her lap as she visited her husband's interment site by wheelchair at the presidential museum.

"I was just stunned," said Harmsen, a real estate developer who lives in Plainfield Township. "I got incredible goosebumps."

Harmsen was tapped for the blanket by friend and former U-M running teammate Greg Meyer, who represents the university.

"Greg said 'I can't tell you what it's going to be used for,'" said Harmsen, "and that I wouldn't get it back, although he did offer to replace it."

Harmsen provided the blanket with no questions asked, and wasn't sure what role it would play until he tuned in to coverage of the funeral last Wednesday at Grace Episcopal Church in East Grand Rapids.

What made Harmsen's contribution even sweeter is this: Harmsen, like Ford, attained the rank of Eagle Scout as a youth, and while a member of the very same troop to which Ford belonged, No. 215.

Harmsen said he never got the chance to meet Ford or shake his hand, and hopes that, when Betty Ford glances at the blanket, "it serves as a reminder to her of the countless number of people who didn't have the opportunity to tell her husband our stories."

Looking skyward

While Harmsen and others were watching Ford's funeral on TV, John H. Cooper of Grand Rapids was outside the church during the service, casually scanning the skies with a powerful set of binoculars.

"I guess it goes back to my days with the Air National Guard," said Cooper, 65, referring to the years he served, from 1962 to 1968. "I'm always scanning the horizon and field of view."

What he beheld overhead as the funeral was in its closing moments is something he will never forget: What he insists was a lone American bald eagle circling far above the intersection of Hall Street and Plymouth Avenue SE.

"I had a pair of 10-by-50 binoculars so I could get a good view of the funeral party," he said. "Then I looked up in the sky and saw this solo bald eagle."

He spotted East Grand Rapids Mayor Cindy Bartman standing nearby, and invited her to look. She doesn't dispute his assessment: "With the binoculars, you could clearly see the white head," she said. "And we have had reports of bald eagles on Reeds Lake."

If Cooper's sighting isn't riveting enough on its own, know this: Cooper was holding an itinerary of the funeral proceedings that had been printed and distributed that morning by The Press.

According to Cooper's best guess, Sgt. First Class Sgt. Alvy R. Powell of the U.S. Army Chorus broke into his solo piece just moments after Cooper spotted the eagle.

The song Powell boomed out that afternoon in his trademark bass-baritone?
"On Eagle's Wings."

Kids sent cards

On a less-somber note, but entirely entertaining, Caledonia resident Laura Bartleson still is recounting the joy she experienced 34 years ago when, as a teacher at Oakdale Christian School, she invited her first-graders to write birthday cards to then-President Richard M. Nixon.

Then-Congressman Gerald Ford delivered the messages, and had them entered verbatim into the Congressional Record of Jan. 9, 1973.

A kid of 6 then, Tom Knol included a $1 bill with this note (original spelling): "From Tom Knol. I put a doller in. I voted for you. I am gladd that you wan." He then added, "Happy Birthday presdent Nixon, when you are haveing a picnic I hop the rain dusint spoyul it."

Knol lives in Caledonia now and works in sales. He said Monday that he only vaguely recalls the letter he wrote.

If Knol's name sounds familiar, it's because he grew up to be something of a political hopeful himself -- running unsuccessfully for both the Grand Rapids city and Kent County commissions.

Bartleson shared this week that Ford's decision to enter the kids' letters shows Jerry Ford was "the guy next door who loved to laugh."

Tom Rademacher's column runs Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail: trademacher@grpress.com
This is not my work. It is just too good to hide from Google.

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