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Former first lady Betty Ford dies at 93

  |   July 8, 2011 at 9:59 PM
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ANN ARBOR, Mich., July 8 (UPI) -- Former U.S. first lady Betty Ford has died, the director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Friday. She was 93.

Elaine Didier confirmed the death of the former first lady, The Washington Post reported. There were no immediate details on the cause or place of death.

Ford, whose husband Gerald Ford succeeded Richard Nixon as president in 1974, was known for her public outspokenness on social issues, including her own substance abuse, an experience that was instrumental in her founding of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

President Barack Obama Friday said Betty Ford "distinguished herself through her courage and compassion."

"As our nation's first lady, she was a powerful advocate for women's health and women's rights," Obama said in a statement issued by the White House. "After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment. While her death is a cause for sadness, we know that organizations such as the Betty Ford Center will honor her legacy by giving countless Americans a new lease on life."

Former first lady Nancy Reagan issued a statement saying she was "deeply saddened this afternoon when I heard of Betty Ford's death," ABC News reported.

"She has been an inspiration to so many through her efforts to educate women about breast cancer and her wonderful work at the Betty Ford Center," Reagan said. "She was Jerry Ford's strength through some very difficult days in our country's history, and I admired her courage in facing and sharing her personal struggles with all of us."

Former President George H.W. Bush issued a statement saying he and former first lady Barbara Bush "loved Betty Ford very much."

"She was a wonderful wife and mother; a great friend; and a courageous first lady. No one confronted life's struggles with more fortitude or honesty, and as a result, we all learned from the challenges she faced," the former president said. "The Betty Ford Center, which already has helped change the lives of thousands of people, will be her lasting legacy of care and concern."

Born Elizabeth Bloomer in 1918 in Chicago, Betty Ford was raised in Michigan and studied dance under Martha Graham in New York, where she also worked as a fashion model. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she met Gerald Ford in 1947 and they were married in 1948, the year he was first elected to Congress from Michigan.

Betty Ford became a public advocate on cancer-related issues after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She supported legal abortion and promoted the equal rights amendment, which was never ratified.

After leaving the White House in 1977, Betty Ford publicly acknowledged she was addicted to alcohol and painkillers. She founded the Betty Ford Center in 1982.

"I'm not out to rescue anybody who doesn't want to be rescued," she once said, ABC reported Friday. "I just think it's important to say how easy it is to slip into a dependency on pills or alcohol. And how hard it is to admit that dependency."

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