GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Dozens of people came out Sunday to remember Grand Rapids’ favorite son President Gerald R. Ford on what would have been his 106th birthday. 

Among those involved in the event’s wreath-laying ceremony were sailors who serve on the aircraft carrier that bears Ford’s name. U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dakota Jarvis and Lt. j.g. Nicholas Spaleny call West Michigan home and said they were honored to participate.

“It’s honestly inspiring,” Spaleny said. “It adds more of a personal aspect to his career. He’s not just a historical figure, he’s someone I can relate to. And having that hometown connection is also even more so inspiring in the way that I conduct myself in the Navy and in my personal life.”

President Gerald R. Ford 106th birthday ceremony
Members of the U.S. Navy honor President Gerald R. Ford at his gravesite in Grand Rapids, marking what would have been his 106th birthday. (July 14, 2019)

Not only do the sailors serve in the same branch of the military as the 38th president, they are roughly the same age Ford was when he served following the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

One family invited to the wreath laying — Maria Lopez, her daughter Nuria and grandsons Vincent, Alex, Lucas and Ricky — says they owe their citizenship to Ford.

“It’s a huge honor,” Nuria Lopez said of being invited to the event. “I want them (my sons) to understand history and understand why they are here … and they are here because of Gerald R. Ford.”

Maria Lopez’s late husband Ernesto Lopez was born in Cuba in 1939. His family moved to Michigan and Ernesto Lopez eventually followed. He then moved to Spain to study for the priesthood in his native language but changed his mind when he met the woman who ultimately became his wife. They got visas and came to Michigan on vacation, deciding that they would like to stay and become citizens.

“We talked to them and they say that it’s not possible … for you to stay here,” Maria Lopez recalled. “We have to go back because the time is up.”

At the airport, bags loaded, Ernesto Lopez called his family to say goodbye. It was during that phone call that family alerted them that Ford, who was a congressman at the time, would help them get citizenship if they chose not to leave that day. A difficult decision had to be made.

“For me, that decision was terrible because I love my country very much and at that time I don’t speak English, nothing, I don’t understand nothing, and I said, ‘OK, with him, whatever you decide,’” Maria Lopez said.

They decided to stay.

“That’s what I’m trying to get them to understand, that you guys would not be here if it was not for A) Gerald R. Ford granting them the citizenship and for her (their grandmother) making the ultimate decision to sacrifice herself and her family to come to Michigan,” Nuria Lopez said. “To see that my boys are being a part of my dad’s history because of Gerald R. Ford, and respecting Gerald R. Ford, it’s our way of saying thank you.”

Ernesto and Maria Lopez and grandsons
Ernesto and Maria Lopez and their grandsons. (Courtesy)

She and her mother said they wish Ernesto Lopez was still here to see it.

Ford’s daughter Susan Ford Bales said the Lopezes’ story showcases her dad’s true character.

“You take all those stories and it’s really a mosaic about his life and it’s pretty incredible,” Ford Bales said.