Our 38th president, Gerald Ford, lived in infamy in the minds of some New Yorkers, thanks not only to the famed Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” but his pardon of Watergate fiend Richard Nixon. Nevertheless, his death on Dec. 26 at age 93 unleashed more than a small amount of sympathy for the accidental president. Here are two ways in which Brooklyn mourned.
Gerald Ford is best known for his “only”: He remains the only president who was elected neither vice president nor president.
But he was also an “only” in another way: Ford remains, astonishingly, the only president who was an Eagle Scout.
And that, more even than Ford’s 900-day presidency, explains why Robert Buonvino spent a part of Saturday morning ringing the 305-year-old bell (right) at Bensonhurst’s historic New Utrecht Reformed Church in honor of Jerry Ford.
“The church has rung the bell to mark the death of every president since Washington, so obviously, we were going to ring it for Ford, too,” said Buonvino, who is not only president of the Friends of Historic New Utrecht, but also chairman of the Brooklyn chapter of the National Eagle Scout Association.
“But the fact that he was our only Eagle Scout president made it even more important to me.”
On Saturday, Buonvino used the funeral clapper, which makes a lower, more mournful “gong” than the standard clapper, and sounded the tone 38 times, pausing 10 seconds between clangs.
It’s the first time the bell — which has tolled for every late president since Washington died in 1799 — had been run since the death of Ronald Reagan in June 2004.
The tolling for Washington was more appropriate than for all the other late great leaders of the free world, it turns out. Though the church dates back to 1677, Washington was the only president to ever visit, which he did in 1790.
“At the time, there was a school on the church grounds,” Buonvino said. “And he visited and had supper at an inn across the street.
“All the students were told to put on their Sunday bests — and Washington shook everyone’s hand.”
No Brooklynite is mourning the death of President Gerald Ford quite like the borough’s letter-writer-in-chief, Louis Schlamowitz, who had been exchanging missives with Ford since the 1970s.
Not that Schlamowitz is particularly enamored of Ford. Over the course of 50 years, Schlamowitz has sent notes to — and received responses from — every bold-faced politico from here to Afghanistan.
Call it an obsession, but Schlamowitz has posted thousands of birthday cards, anniversary cards, get-well wishes, and congratulatory notes to the likes of Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy, Dick Cheney and Nancy Pelosi, Jimmy Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini — plus every astronaut who has traveled to space.
Indeed, corresponding with Schlamowitz is probably the only thing Muammar Qadaffi and Bill Clinton have in common.
Schlamowitz has preserved a half-century of epistolary history in 60 albums, which are piled high in a hallway closet in Canarsie’s Bayview projects.
One of those albums is devoted to government officials who’ve broken the law. And each recent president, including the late great 38th, has his own album.
“President Ford returned to Congress [in 1970], and I wrote him, ‘I’d like to add your picture to my collection,’” said Schlamowitz.
Flipping through the Ford album, he pointed to a Ford family Christmas card from a couple of years back, the ex-president looking miles away from his deathbed.
There were dozens of such exchanges and autographed photos, in addition to letters from First Lady Betty Ford, complete with her rounded, girlish signature.
“The last time I wrote him was when he went to the hospital — I wished him well,” said Schlamowitz, 76. “He was a really good pen pal.”
Schlamowitz described the ex-prez as “a great, very warm, sweet individual.” But it’s hard to gauge Schlamowitz’s true feelings, given that he often has to cloak his actual opinions to add to his collection.
“Not all of my pen pals are friendly,” said Schlamowitz. “I use diplomacy on some of them. That’s how I get my letters.”
Still, Schlamowitz has yet to coax a response from Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator.
A lifelong Canarsie resident and former flower arranger, he began his letter-writing career when he was stationed in Yung Dung Po, Korea in 1953. He had just one Christmas card left, and he asked his friend what he should do with it.
“My friend said, ‘Send it to Harry Truman.’ ” So, as an experiment, Schlamowitz sent Truman a letter, and got a response on January 1, 1954. The rest is history (not Truman’s, but Schlamowitz’s).
Over the years, Schlamowitz has been visited by FBI agents, and most recently, officials from Homeland Security eager to discus his “relationships” with government officials, and his “motivations” for writing.
“I said, ‘I have no motivations. This is just a hobby!’” he said. “It’s what keeps me going.”
Regardless of the obstacles, Schlamowitz showed no signs of giving up his hobby last week, as he headed to the lobby to retrieve his mail.
Sure enough, there was an envelope bearing a signed photo of embattled Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.