A Page in History
After Gerald Ford’s passing, Mark Griffith ’77
recalls his own part in presidential history.
Story by Amelia Benner ’09
For his book, Griffith used his own vast collection of Ford campaign memorabilia,
some of it collected while he worked as a page at the 1976 Republican convention.
The death of former U.S. President Gerald Ford on Dec. 26, 2006, had particular resonance
for one Illinois Wesleyan alumnus. Mark D. Griffith ’77 served as a page at the 1976
Republican National Convention in Kansas City, rubbing elbows with Ford and other
major figures of the era.
Griffith was appointed a page by Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson, who was grateful
for Griffith’s help as the Ford campaign’s campus coordinator for Central Illinois
during the primary. Griffith, who was president of the IWU College Republicans, had
also served as a page in the General Assembly in Springfield.
The 1976 convention was, according to Griffith, the last “bloody convention,” in that
both candidates — President Ford and California Governor Ronald Reagan — went to the
convention without enough delegates to clinch the nomination.
There were 256 pages at the convention, most of whom spent their time in a room below
the convention floor, awaiting an assignment. Griffith, however, was one of seven
pages promoted to “Officer of the Convention” status, an honor that included a special
Secret Service clearance allowing him to explore the behind-the-scenes workings of
the convention as he pleased.
Griffith calls this picture of him, taken in Kemp Hall at the height of the 1976 campaign,
his "rock star photo."
“I was able to go meet Betty Ford, Sonny Bono, and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller,
and was able to escort Cary Grant to his speech,” Griffith said. “We all ignored Senator
Dole. No one suspected that he would be the vice presidential nominee. Pat Boone,
with his white shoes, asked me not to tell anyone that he was there — despite the
fact that everyone had already told me.”
Although Reagan — who would win the nomination and general election four years later
— had developed a strong following, Ford and Dole were able to capture the party’s
1976 nomination. Griffith was posted below the podium during Ford’s acceptance speech.
In an attempt to foster Republican unity, Ford summoned Reagan to address the convention.
Hoping to get Reagan’s autograph, Griffith called out, “Governor Reagan, I am from
Dixon, Illinois!” as he passed.
The governor, a native of Dixon, stopped to chat a moment and gave the page his autograph.
Griffith, who remembers Reagan as “very cordial,” admitted, “ “My statement was actually
a big lie, but close enough.” He actually grew up in Ashton, Ill., 15 miles from
Dixon. “My grandfather was county supervisor (in Dixon) and wrote the welfare checks
for Reagan’s father, which somehow I neglected to mention. He was preoccupied with
his impending speech and didn’t notice that I kept his pen.”
Ronald Reagan autographed Griffith's convention pass--and Griffith kept his pen.
After graduating from IWU in 1977, Griffith went to medical school at the University
of Illinois. He now serves as medical director of the rehabilitation center at Home
Hospital in Lafayette, Ind., where he lives with his wife Ann and their two children.
Griffith credits IWU History Professor Paul Bushnell with inspiring him to pursue
his love of history. “He kept trying to get me to be a history major,” Griffith recalled.
“I wanted to go to medical school. I guess I got to do both.”
In 2003 Griffith published Heroes Next Door, a collection of oral histories from World War II. In the foreword to the book, Griffith
writes of the importance of preserving soldiers’ stories.
“Since age 7, I have been talking to World War II veterans about their experiences,”
wrote Griffith, who has served in the Navy Reserves as a lieutenant commander. “Being
somewhat old-fashioned even as a child of the seventies, I feel there are certain
things one should know if he is to be considered an American.” Griffith is now working
with PBS on a WWII segment for “History Detectives.”
Despite Ford’s eventual loss to Jimmy Carter in the general election, Griffith has
fond memories of the 1976 campaign. Griffith owns the largest private collection of
Ford items in the United States, and in 2005 he published Neighborhood Headquarters. The book is a pictorial essay of memorabilia from the 1976 campaign, featuring photos
of Republican promotional materials ranging from socks to Frisbees to toilet paper,
all emblazoned with Ford’s name.
A campaign poster from Griffith's collection depicts Ford as Fonzie from the popular
T.V. show "Happy Days."
Both President Ford and Senator Dole contributed forewords to the book, which is used
as a reference at the Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. “This book was
effective in transporting Betty and me back to my Presidency and with it all the fond
memories of the wonderful Americans we met while criss-crossing the country during
the ’76 election,” Ford wrote.
In the wake of Ford’s death, historians are reassessing his contributions to American
politics, including his controversial pardon of Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign
in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Griffith believes that most Americans now realize
that the Nixon pardon was a necessary step.
“President Ford’s legacy is of trying to do the right thing,” Griffith said. “A polar
opposite of Nixon’s personality, Gerald Ford was what the country needed, post-Watergate.
His calm demeanor kept the country together.”