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Betty Ford: A free spirit who became an inspiration to millions

Former first lady Betty Ford's triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center in California. Mrs. Ford passed on Friday.

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"People who get well often say, 'You saved my life,' and 'You've turned my life around,'" Mrs. Ford once said. "They don't realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves, and that's all."

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In a statement Friday, President Barack Obama said the Betty Ford Center would honor Mrs. Ford's legacy "by giving countless Americans a new lease on life."

"As our nation's First Lady, she was a powerful advocate for women's health and women's rights," the president said. "After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment."

Mrs. Ford was a free spirit from the start. Elizabeth Bloomer, born April 8, 1918, fell in love with dance as a girl in Grand Rapids, Mich., and decided it would be her life. At 20, despite her mother's misgivings, she moved to New York to learn from her idol Martha Graham. She lived in Greenwich Village, worked as a model, and performed at Carnegie Hall in Graham's modern dance ensemble. "I thought I had arrived," she later recalled.

But her mother coaxed her back to Grand Rapids, where Betty worked as a dance teacher and store fashion coordinator and married William Warren, a friend from school days. He was a salesman who traveled frequently; she was unhappy. They lasted five years.

While waiting for her divorce to become final, she met and began dating, as she put it in her memoir, "probably the most eligible bachelor in Grand Rapids" — former college football star, Navy veteran and lawyer Jerry Ford. They would be married for 58 years, until his death in December 2006.

When he proposed, she didn't know about his political ambitions; when he launched his bid for Congress during their engagement, she figured he couldn't win.

Two weeks after their October 1948 wedding, her husband was elected to his first term in the House. He would serve 25 years, rising to minority leader.

Mrs. Ford was thrust into a role she found exhausting and unfulfilling: political housewife. While her husband campaigned for weeks at a time or worked late on Capitol Hill, she raised their four children: Michael, Jack, Steven and Susan. She arranged luncheons for congressional wives, helped with her husband's campaigns, became a Cub Scout den mother, taught Sunday school.

A pinched nerve in her neck in 1964, followed by the onset of severe osteoarthritis, led her to an assortment of prescription drugs that never fully relieved the pain. For years she had been what she later called "a controlled drinker, no binges." Now she began mixing pills and alcohol. Feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated, she suffered an emotional breakdown that led to weekly visits with a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist didn't take note of her drinking but instead tried to build her self-esteem: "He said I had to start thinking I was valuable, not just as a wife and mother, but as myself."