A 38 year memory was awakened by the recent death of Betty Ford, the courageous and often outspoken wife of our 38th president. During the turbulent post Watergate mid-1970s, our pharmacy serviced a local retirement home. One charming resident, nearing the century mark, Maude Elbel, was the widow of Louis Elbel who had penned the University of Michigan fight song, “Hail to the Victors” during an interurban train ride from Chicago to South Bend, IN in 1898. Louie had died in 1959 at the age of 82.
Twice yearly, a New York agency would mail Maude a check, usually ~ $50; royalties from the sale of the copyrighted sheet music. She would call me to pick up the check, cash it, then return the bounty to her apartment. My reward; two cookies, an iced tea, and a priceless insight into aging. The elevation of Gerald Ford, a proud U of M grad, into a role as the first and only unelected president, the antithesis of his predecessors, Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, resulted in an unexpected windfall for Mrs. Elbel.
Traditionally, upon a president’s arrival, bands would play the familiar “Hail to the Chief”. Now, the repertoire would often include “Hail to the Victors”, in honor of the UofM connection, and that had every band director scrambling for the sheet music. Now checks were arriving monthly, often for $100 or more. Well…..you might imagine…..Maude thought Gerald Ford was the very best president ever, at least since the Civil War.
A year later as she approached her 100th birthday, I wrote the white house, recalled the story, and asked if they might be kind enough to send her a birthday card….mind you, this was long before Willard Scott, the Today Show, and old folks photos on the Schmucker jars. Frankly I expected no response, but for the cost of a 13¢ stamp, no harm would be done and I quickly forgot. A week later, to my astonishment, Betty Ford’s secretary called the pharmacy and asked me to go to Mrs. Elbel’s apartment within the next ten minutes. How was I to say ‘wait a second’ to the first lady ?
Betty Ford (nee, Bloomer) in 1936
I rushed over, sat down, and Maude’s first question, “did you bring me more money ?”
“No, but I am expecting your phone to ring”, I responded.
“Why ? No one ever calls here.”
The phone rang. I answered.
“Hello Charles, this is Betty Ford, your note was very thoughtful, may I speak with Mrs. Elbel?”
‘Maude it’s for you’.
From my wallflower position, the conversation went something like this:
Mrs. F- hello Mrs. Elbel, this is Betty Ford and I’d like to wish you a happy birthday
Mrs. E- Betty who ? I don’t know any Betty aside from Betty Crocker and Betty Grable, Who are you and why are you calling while my druggist is visiting?
Mrs. F- I apologize for interrupting, this is Betty Ford, my husband is president of the United States, he’s right here, and would like to talk to you, do you have a moment?
Mrs. E- (an audible gasp), then a “y..e..s…ssss.”
Have you ever, ever, seen a 100 year old woman walk on air ?
Maude and Gerry chatted for several minutes, small talk about the song, her respect for him as president, her mother’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln, and recounting how much she missed her husband and how she looked forward to being with him again someday. The president promised to send her a real card, not just a phone call (he did, a week later, on White House stationery).
Sadly, Gerald Ford, in an unselfish act of political suicide, had to do the unconscionable but necessary pardon of the scoundrel Nixon, thus assuring a victory for Jimmy Carter. The Fords, although not politically polished, remain the classiest first couple of the 20th century….always the country before themselves.
Guess what I think about every time I sit down for two Archway cookies and a Lipton tea ?
Maude Elbel, born in 1875, died in 1981, at the age of 106.