A large matter of 13 cents

My letter from President Ford was held hostage.

Tony Spina/AP
In May 1976 then-President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, waved to supporters as they campaigned in Michigan.

In 1976, during my junior year of university, I volunteered to work for the Presidentials, a national youth program to elect Gerald Ford president of the United States. Mr. Ford was already serving as president – America's only unelected president. (In 1973, he became vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned, pleading "no contest" to income-tax evasion. Later, in 1974, Ford became president when Richard Nixon resigned due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal.)

I worked with other Presidentials in my state to support Ford in the GOP presidential primary. It was exciting work, and I was invited to go to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Mo. It was exciting because, going into the convention, neither Ford nor his challenger, Ronald Reagan, had enough delegates to capture the presidential nomination.

Eventually, Ford captured the delegates needed to win the nomination, but then lost the election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

In January 1977, on Ford's last day as president, I sent a telegram to him and Mrs. Ford at the White House. I thanked them for their service to our country and wished them well as private citizens. It was a brief message.

Several days passed, and I received a response from the Fords, a letter. In the upper-right corner of the envelope, where the first-class stamp normally goes, was the signature "Gerald Ford." The envelope was also stamped by the post office with "Postage due 13 cents." Yes, in 1977 the cost of a first-class stamp was 13 cents.

My mail carrier wanted to collect the 13 cents from me, but I remembered a former teacher instructing my class that presidents didn't have to pay postage. Presidents could simply sign their names on the letter and the US Postal Service would deliver it. So I told the mail carrier that I didn't have to pay the postage because Gerald Ford was president of the United States.

The mail carrier countered by saying only a sitting president could get free postage. I held my ground. I told him that former President Ford was entitled to free mail as a perk of his former job. The mail carrier maintained that I owed 13 cents for the presidential letter, and he refused to give it to me.

He said the letter would be held at the local post office and I could pick it up when I was ready to pay the 13 cents.

So I called and made an appointment to talk with the local postmaster.

When I arrived for my appointment, I was nervous but still firm in my position that I did not owe 13 cents for the presidential letter. Surely, I thought, the postmaster knew the rules for presidential mail.

To my surprise, the postmaster greeted me warmly. He thanked me for coming in to discuss my claim. Apparently, the postmaster had been briefed on the reason for my visit.

"Mr. Patterson," the postmaster said, "you are right. President Ford's signature is sufficient to cover the first-class cost of his letter to you. You do not owe the Postal Service 13 cents." The postmaster went on to say he wished his employees knew as much about the Postal Service policies on presidential mail as I apparently did. Then the postmaster handed me the letter. I thanked him and left the post office.

Outside in front of the post office, I opened the letter. "Thank you for your kind words," it began. It ended with, "Betty and I are grateful for your friendship." And I was grateful the Fords had found time to drop me a letter in response to my telegram. It is a special letter to me and one I will always treasure.

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