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Powerful Women Let's Talk - 117: Susan Ford Bales

Shelley Irwin with Susan Ford Bales
Shelley Irwin with Susan Ford Bales

Susan Ford Bales joined Shelley Irwin on Powerful Women: Let's Talk

Susan Ford Bales is the youngest child and only daughter of former President Gerald R. Ford and Betty Ford. She’s a photojournalist and the former chair of the board of the Betty Ford Center for alcohol and drug abuse. Susan joins WGVU Shelley Irwin to talk about her upbringing, life in the White House, advocacy work and more. We welcome Susan Ford Bales to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Narr: Produced by women, about women, Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Irwin: Well, this powerful woman needs no introduction from her present advocacy on stage sharing her life and White House memories to hometown audiences plus, many hats as chairs, a pretty big ship sponsor, trustee service too, of course, forever wearing the title, favorite daughter of President Gerald and Betty Ford. We share a conversation with Susan Ford Bales on this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk. I hope that introduction never gets old, Susan.

Susan Ford Bales: No, but would you introduce me everyday?

SI: Well, you know, I have my sources and certainly it's all true and all positive. And yet there's probably still more for you to do. Susan, glad you're here, a question you have had before, let's get into it: earliest memories of you, of your childhood. Bring me back there.

SFB: There they would be back in Alexandria, Virginia. I guess 5, 6, -ish playing basketball with my brothers on the street. My brothers used to take the rollers off my roller skates to make skate boards for themselves…

SI: You’re dating yourself!

SFB: I know that really dates us, but just being in the neighborhood and being in Alexandria. I mean, that was that was what you're doing.

SI: Yes. And for those who need a little 101, at what point did you live in the White House age-wise?

SFB: I was a senior in high school. So I was 17. And really, you know, what senior in high school really wants that kind of notoriety or attention brought them? I wanted to be a senior in high school like every other kid in the United States. And so that put a little creep in my style, having Secret Service agents.

SI: I can imagine, but there still was a prom.

SFB: There was still a prom and we're still the only prom to ever be held at the White House.

SI: What did you want to be when you grew up?

SFB: Well, I ended up getting into photojournalism because of David Kennerly, who was our White House photographer. He gave me one of his F-1s and said, “you need to start documenting this.” And I really took to it and I really liked it. So then when I went off to college, I did some photojournalism classes and that sort of thing, and then I went to work. But I'm glad I did it that way. But if I redid it now, I would landscape architecture.

SI: Can you redo it now? But that's another conversation. And we'll get to possibly the role of changing interests and in changing careers...so, how to get along with your brothers growing up?

SFB: They were brothers. They were, you know, I got used to practice wrestling holds on. And and my parents really raised just in the era of “if you pick your fight, you fight your fight.” Because you're a girl I'm not going to intervene. And, you know, “don't do that because she's a girl” - that was that didn't work in our household. So I was kind of a tomboy. I was pretty tough. So I stood up for myself and still do.

SI: Name a trait you take from your mom and name a treat you take from your dad.

SFB: A trait from my dad would be very punctual. A trait from my mom would be…one of my favorite quotes of hers is, “I have an independent streak in me and it's kind of hard to control an independent person.” I’m independent.

SI: What do you tell the kids that are going to grow up in the White House in these times?

SFB: You know, I am so lucky there was no 24-7 media when was there [laughs] because I was a senior in high school and a freshman in college and into my sophomore year, because I would have been a lot of trouble. I think the advice I would give them is have a good time and experience as much as you can. I traveled some with my parents, but I didn't get to go on all the trips because here was this thing called college and high school, but just experience and sit back and watch and pay attention. It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun.

SI: Tell me about your daughters.

SFB: They both fit into the independent streak, kind of runs in the females in our family. They both work full time and are married and have children and gave me lovely, wonderful grandchildren. But they are hard working very socially minded girls. And I think they got that from their grandmother. I will never forget one of the favorite stories. And I think it's and Richard Norton Smith says new book that's out. A daughter and I will not name a name came home for Thanksgiving, and we were all in Palm Springs and she was living with her fiancé at the time and her uncles were giving her a hard time about doing that before she got married. And my mother jumped in and just was like, “excuse me, you all have no right to talk” and totally protected her and said, “she can do whatever she wants to do.” And it doesn't matter what you uncles have to say to her. And I was like, that's my mom. I was very, very proud of my daughter and my mom for sticking together.

SI: Former chair of the board, Betty Ford Center's for alcohol and drug abuse. Can you count how many lives, perhaps you and your mom touched?

SFB: I would say when we were just the Betty Ford Center, it was over 100,000 lives. Since the merger with Hazleton, because now it's Hazleton, Betty Ford Foundation, and we have more than 14 sites throughout the United States. You know, we're probably a half million that we've saved because you're not only counting the patients but counting the family members and the family members are just as important and just as sick as the patient is

SI: Which you had to experience.

SFB: I did have to experience it. I went to family. I have been to family many times for other reasons and I still attend a 12-step meeting myself because good values, good information and it's helpful.

SI: Let’s stay on the topic of health, one may not know, if I may, you have had some cardiac issues in your life.

SFB: Yes, I did. 13 years ago, 2010, I went into cardiac arrest and that's not a-fib, It's what they call v-fib. It’s called the widow maker. I was exercising at the gym and was on an elliptical machine and collapsed. And luckily a thoracic surgeon was there and shocked me back. But I ignored every recommendation that you hear. I was 52 years old. I had pain in my arm, the jaw, the whole 9 yards that morning and I ignored it. And I went, oh it’s just a cold drizzly day in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I pulled some muscles in my shoulder from bringing firewood in. And I learned a lesson real quickly. But the good news was I had no heart damage. So there was no heart damage. An I cleaned up my life a lot since then.

SI: What does Grand Rapids mean to you, West Michigan mean to you?

SFB: You know, it's a really special place, it's like coming home, even though I never lived here because I get to see cousins and family members. I always go to the tomb. Today at the luncheon it was great hearing dad's voice. I love going to the museum to hear their voices. It’s just you know, [chokes up] I spent my summers here as a kid up in Holland at the lake and it just has a really special place in my heart.

SI: Thank you for sharing that. So, a prom in the White House. Did you have a date?

SFB: Absolutely. Billie Pipher.

SI: Does he know where you are now?

SFB: I don't know, I know he's still in Winchester, Virginia.

SI: So how does it feel to have been named an honorary naval aviator?

SFB: You know, that was really an amazing surprise. I was I was not expecting that from then Captain Myers, who is now a Rear Admiral. But it also happened on my mother's birthday. It was just an amazing surprise. John and I had work so hard on the ship, getting it ready. And, you know, picking out all of the emblems and how we were going to do things, and then having worked all those years with the shipbuilders before it was commissioned and joined the Navy. And it was just probably one of the nicest honors that I've ever received. That was, you know, my dad always said when he found out that the carrier was going to be named after him, never expected it. There was his name and there were several other names in the hat for that particular carrier. He was just blown away, especially when he died 6 weeks later. So I would feel the same way. It was an honor that I never expected. And it was one of the nicest surprises that I ever got.

SI: How does a young lady find her passion? Both of us, perhaps, wanted different careers in our early late teens. How does she of go with the flow is that's the way to put it.

SFB: You know, to me, nothing needs to be written in stone. I think we all need the chance for a do-over. Change our minds. I mean, did I really know at 19 what I wanted to do for the rest of my life? I thought I did. But I really didn't, I don't think it was until after I had children and things like that, that I really, in my late 20's, that I really had a feeling for what I wanted to do and what brought me joy. And that's part of it. What brings you joy?

SI: What’s still on your bucket list, Susan?

SFB: Right now it's travel because I didn't travel a lot. We didn't travel a lot as a family outside of the United States. One of the places in the United States is the Grand Canyon. I have not been to the Grand Canyon. Shame on me. I'm headed to Greece this year, I’m headed to Egypt next year. I've never been to Italy. So I have a lot of European travel to do.

SI: Just make sure passports up to date.

SFB: It is!

SI: Lastly, how can our community continue to hold the memories of the Ford family alive?

SFB: Wow. I think this community is doing a great job of it to begin with, you know, with the museum and all of that. And you have the tomb, and I mean, there are buildings, the airport is named after him. I mean, it's so funny because when I board a plane and they say you're headed to Grand Rapids. I want to go, “yeah and the Gerald R Ford Airport” -most people don't know that, that’s me, that's my family [laughs]. But I think Western Michigan really stands out and does a good job of representing him and is always very kind and very thoughtful about both my parents. I mean, I look at what Mary Free Bed and my grandmother, you know, being involved in Mary Free Bed. And then my mother and all of that. I mean, there's there's just so much history here in Grand Rapids.

SI: And are you as good a dancer is your mom?

SFB: Oh, heavens, no, no, no.

SI: You have your talents. Susan Ford Bales, thank you for this conversation, Powerful Women: Let's Talk. Go get ‘em.

SFB: Thank you, Shelly.

Narr: Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let’s Talk? Additional interviews are at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.

Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.
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