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A Moment with President Ford

January 04, 2007

 

In July of 1996, the RPO was in residence at Vail, Colorado for our annual concert series at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. We were scheduled to perform a special outdoor concert at Beaver Creek and we knew President Ford, Mrs. Ford and their family would be in attendance. Since it was near the president’s birthday, I decided to arrange a celebratory piece of music in Ford’s honor that would include Happy Birthday, Hail to the Chief and America the Beautiful.

 

On the day of the concert, the weather threatened and the concert came close to being cancelled. Even with the chance of getting drenched and the possibility of rain-soaked and damaged instruments, the orchestra and I decided it was important to play for President Ford. We went ahead with the event.

As we played, the rain began to fall and indeed some of the players were getting soaked. The Ford family, guests and secret service listened to the concert from a special tent set up on the great lawn at the site. Finally, the weather let up a bit and the moment arrived for us to play the new arrangement in honor of President Ford’s birthday.

As the applause erupted at the end of the piece and I turned to the audience, I saw President Ford walking through the muddy field towards the orchestra with the Secret Service in tow. When I handed President Ford the microphone, he thanked the orchestra and me for honoring him with our musical tribute. I saw tears in his eyes. He asked me for the musical score to the arrangement (entitled Happy Birthday President Ford) and said he would put the score in his Presidential Library.

After the concert, he came backstage to thank the RPO players and me once again. I found myself having a private moment with President Ford, Betty Ford and my wife Jill and I said to the President, “Mr. President, as an American I want to thank you for doing the right thing for our country.” He asked what I meant and I said, “As a young man I was devastated about what was happening to our country as a result of Watergate and when I heard the words ‘Our long national nightmare is over’ and saw your courageous move to pardon President Nixon and move the United States in the right direction regardless of the political fallout, I was comforted and encouraged. I knew you were a great man.” My wife Jill was looking at me with wide eyes. Betty Ford said very quietly, “that’s nice.”

President Ford was silent for a few moments. I stood there wondering what was coming and thinking that the former President didn’t need my endorsement and maybe I had just ruined a nice experience.

And then Gerald R. Ford, 38th President of the United States spoke for about fifteen minutes and told Jill and me about the days and hours leading up to his monumental decision. It was one of the most riveting moments of my life and was further proof to me of what a great man he was. Sure, he was the President, but more importantly, a great man.

A few weeks later a letter of thanks for the arrangement arrived with a copy of the “Our long national nightmare is over” speech that he autographed for me. The copy of the speech and the moment with President Ford are two things I will always treasure.

-- Jeff Tyzik
Principal Pops Conductor, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra



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