GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — With a military honor guard carrying her casket, Betty Ford returned Thursday to the church where she and her husband got married more than 60 years ago, a wedding that launched the unassuming Michigan couple on an unexpected path to the White House.
The former first lady's children were joined for the final memorial service by prominent political figures and hundreds of mourners from Ford's hometown of Grand Rapids. A crowd outside Grace Episcopal Church stood in hushed silence as nine military pallbearers brought her casket inside while softly counting out military cadence.
At the podium, son Steven Ford described the family's bond, referring to them as a naval fleet.
"Dad was the aircraft carrier. I know that," he said. "If Mom was in our fleet, which she was, she was the hospital ship. She was the one there with the love and the comfort."
"She just knew how to love," he added. "We felt her love long before her spotlight came ... And then the world got to see her love."
Historian Richard Norton Smith praised Ford's uncommon candor about breast cancer, gender equality and substance abuse.
"More than a liberated woman, Betty Ford was a great liberator . . . (who) liberated us all from the crippling limits of labels."
Ford "was the feminist next door — a free spirit with a dress code," he said, ranking her alongside "other great champions of women's rights."
"Millions who never met her felt they knew Betty Ford. ... They identified with her struggles," he said.
When "a lethal silence enveloped the subject of breast cancer like a London fog," Ford "broke the silence" and became a face of recovery, not disease, Smith said.
After leaving the White House, she did the same with drug and alcohol addiction.
"Simply by being herself, she made it easier for countless others to follow suit," he said.
In recent years, as Ford became more ill, she asked her children, "When are you going to let me go and be with my boyfriend?" Smith said.
She got her wish Friday when she died at 93. She was to be buried at the museum, next to her husband, on what would have been his 98th birthday.
"Our sorrow is exceeded by our joy for we know that the story of Elizabeth Boomer Ford does not end in a Grand Rapids hillside," Smith said. "Betty Ford is where she wants to be — reunited with the love of her life and radiant in the glory of her ultimate homecoming."
Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said the mere mention of Ford's name "brings good and hopeful things to mind."
"She spoke of living a page of history," Cheney said. "And Betty Ford filled that page, and she filled it with ... class and courage."
Also in attendance were former first lady Barbara Bush, former President Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney, who was President Ford's chief of staff.
The church, a sand-colored brick structure in a residential neighborhood, hosted a memorial for Gerald Ford following his death in 2006.
Although the crowds gathered Wednesday and Thursday in Michigan were smaller than those at Gerald Ford's services, Betty Ford was remembered fondly for giving dance lessons and working as a fashion coordinator and clothing buyer at the local Herpolscheimer's department store before marrying.
"She was the kind of woman we all would aspire to be," said Karen Mouw of Grand Rapids. "She stayed true to herself. When she had her own issues with addiction, she faced them. She was open about them. I think that's the biggest thing that inspired me. If you have an obstacle you face it, and you do the best you can and help other people if you can."
Sharon Schoenfeld of Plymouth, Wis., interrupted a camping trip to come to the church. "Ten years ago, I had breast cancer, and I remember when she had breast cancer and kind of made everything public about it. I always thought she was a neat lady."
In a front yard across from the church, a group of 10 children were seated on blankets and surrounded by miniature U.S. flags. They chanted "We love Mrs. Ford." A girl walked past with a red-and-white "President Ford '76" sign.
Thursday's final service followed a public viewing in Grand Rapids that spanned two days.
Ford's casket arrived at Gerald R. Ford International Airport after a larger service in Palm Desert, Calif., that drew 800 people, including former President George W. Bush and first lady Michelle Obama.
Ford, the accidental first lady, was thrust into the White House when Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, and her husband, then vice president, assumed the nation's highest office. Although she said she never wished to be first lady, she quickly embraced the role.
Her openness about previously taboo subjects was unheard of in the 1970s and helped bring cancer, sex and drug and alcohol abuse into the nation's public discussions.
After leaving the White House, she spearheaded creation of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where thousands of people have received treatment for substance abuse.