Gerald R. Ford may have had closer ties to Utah than any other U.S. president.

His son, Jack, attended Utah State University. Close friends lived in the state and spent the holidays with him for years. He made many trips to Utah before, during and after his presidency. He brought several Utahns to the White House as aides.

After his death Tuesday, those Utah friends remembered him as a man of courage and integrity who helped restore faith in America and its politicians — but even more as a down-to-earth guy who was a good friend.

Christopher Brown remembers with melancholy this particular week after Christmas how his family from Tremonton for years spent the week between Christmas and New Year's with Ford's family.

He said his father, Jim Brown, was a Republican official from Utah who met Ford when the future president was a congressman. "Both families had kids about the same age, and we just hit it off," Brown, now of Malad, Idaho, remembers. "They would come to Utah to ski with us, and we would go to Vail, Colo., to ski with them. It cemented a friendship."

When Ford surprisingly became Richard Nixon's nominee to become vice president in 1974, Ford still kept long-made plans to visit his son, Jack, a forestry student at USU, and also to stay at the home of Jim and Gloria Brown in Tremonton. So, swarms of reporters and the Secret Service descended on the small town.

"I remember I had a hut in the back yard," Brown recalls. "It became the Secret Service hot spot, which I thought was really cool."

He has even better memories of Ford. "My fondest memories are him with a stocking cap and skis smoking a pipe, and how much I loved the smell. He was the most kind and gentle person that there was."

Brown's sister, Jennifer Jensen of Hyde Park, remembers staying with the Fords in the White House for several days — and also later how Ford gave the Browns a pup from the litter of his dog in the White House, Liberty. "We had a contest at the elementary school to name the dog," she recalls. The puppy was named Liberty's Pride.

A gifted athlete

Other Utah friends of Ford recall that he was sometimes different than how he was portrayed in the press.

As one example, Roger Porter — a Provo native and Harvard University professor who was a White House aide to Ford (and Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush) — says the press erroneously pictured Ford as a clumsy bumbler who hit people in the head with errant golf and tennis shots or tripped down airplane steps.

"The truth is, he was actually a very gifted athlete. He and George H.W. Bush were probably the most athletic presidents ever," Porter said Wednesday.

He should know. Porter played tennis with both. In fact, when then-President Ford, who had been a star football player for the University of Michigan, heard that Porter was a former Utah state tennis champion, he made the young aide his doubles partner.

For years, Porter displayed a photo in his White House office of him and Ford playing tennis against George H.W. Bush. Ford had arranged that doubles game to help Bush relax just before his Senate confirmation hearings as CIA director.

Ford himself said some interesting things about Utah and Utahns.

"It was Horace Greeley who said 'Go West, young man,' but it was Brigham Young who knew where to

stop," Ford, as vice president, told a USU graduation ceremony in June 1974.

(Ford always loved the West. He was a ranger in Yellowstone National Park in 1936, and he long maintained a condo in Vail.).

After the Mormon Tabernacle Choir gave Ford a special concert during that same trip to Utah, Ford said he and his wife felt "a nice closeness to the people of the Mormon faith" because of their "many, many" LDS friends in Washington.

"As a matter of fact, I think they probably had as big an impact in raising our four children as Mrs. Ford and I did, and it was all to the good, let me assure you," Ford told the choir.

Ford said he had associated for years with such well-known LDS Church members as Ezra Taft Benson (President Eisenhower's agriculture secretary, an LDS apostle and later church president), hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott and George Romney, governor of Ford's home state of Michigan and father of current Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Other Utah ties

Ford made numerous other trips to Utah through the years, campaigning for Utah candidates as House minority leader, vice president, president and former president. He talked to students at USU, the University of Utah and Brigham Young University. He played in golf tournaments in the state.

He once gave an exclusive interview to then-Deseret News reporter Rod Decker in 1978, where he talked, in part, about why he had pardoned Richard Nixon for his Watergate scandal involvement.

He said that before he issued the pardon, "I had to spend 25 percent of my time listening to lawyers on his papers and tapes and other questions. The only way to get it off the deck was to pardon him. I did it, and I'll defend it."

Ford brought several Utahns to the White House, including Porter (as secretary of Ford's transition team and an economic adviser), Brent Scowcroft (as a national security adviser) and Stephen Studdert (an advance planner for events). All would also later serve Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

"I consider Gerald Ford one of our most underrated presidents," Porter said Wednesday.

"He inherited a difficult situation internationally and domestically as well as a nation deeply skeptical regarding the honesty of its political leaders," he said. "Gerald Ford, with his decency and integrity, was the right man at this crucial moment."

Porter, who met with Ford several times a week on economics when he was president, added, "I found myself constantly impressed by his grasp of economic principles (he had majored in economics at the University of Michigan) and his consistent preference for options that promised long-term benefits rather than short-term gains."

Likewise, Studdert remembers, "Never in my time serving on his White House staff did I see him do anything that he did not truly believe was in the best interest of the nation."

Studdert adds, "He was always mindful that he worked for the people. There was no ego, no arrogance, no prideful haughtiness so common among many politicians. His whole character was one of humility — he was the common man in all his service."

Studdert also remembers, "Gerald Ford was always a gentleman — in private and public. The gentleman we saw backstage was the same one the public saw on stage."

Paying tribute

Current Utah politicians also praised Ford on Wednesday after his passing.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, "President Ford was incredibly gutsy and strong, yet also one of the most decent, honorable and nicest men that I have ever known. He could get along with anyone, and he was someone who could work with both sides. But he also had a high ethical and moral standard from which he would not budge — regardless of the political advantage."

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, added, "President Gerald Ford dedicated his life to public service, early on as a Navy commander and later as a member of Congress, vice president and finally as president of the United States. He was a man of great integrity and led this country with distinction during a very trying and divisive period."

E-mail: lee@desnews.com