Gerald Ford was appointed president of the United States via the 25th Amendment, pardoned Richard Nixon a disgraced president after his resignation and then lost to Jimmy Carter when they competed for the seat in 1976. Along with many Americans, this is the only information River Forest native Jonathan Panton knew about the late president.
Driven by a natural curiosity for history and an interest in presidential biographies, Panton searched for Ford’s biography on the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum website. After a little digging, he was shocked to find one of his hometown villages had been home for the late president for just a smidge during his first year.
Ford and his mother, Dorothy Ayer Gardner Ford, moved to Oak Park in 1913 after fleeing from her abusive relationship with Ford’s father, Leslie Lynch King. For roughly two months, the pair settled at 410 N. Humphrey Ave., the home of Dorothy’s sister, Tannisse James, and her husband, Clarence James. While Ford’s time in Oak Park was brief, photographic evidence compiled by Panton shows he and his mother returned to visit family here on numerous occasions after moving to their permanent home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“A common reaction I get is either an initial disbelief that President Ford lived here, surprise that no one knew about it, and then excitement to learn about his story,” said Panton.
Motivated by these reactions, Panton reached out to the Oak Park and River Forest Historical Society to find out if they were already aware of his findings. Their unfamiliarity sparked Panton’s enthusiasm to educate, leading him to create his “passion project.” He dedicated his time and efforts to developing a presentation that would inform Oak Park and surrounding communities of his discoveries.
To further awareness, Panton suggested the Village of Oak Park place a plaque in front of the house on Humphrey. The village denied his request as Ford did nothing of “historical significance” in the home.
“Even though Gerald Ford only spent a brief portion of his life here, he did still at the end of the day live in a historic city. I really do think that the Village of Oak Park should at least acknowledge it and recognize a President of the United States for living here,” said Panton.
Determined to have a plaque placed at the home, Panton contacted the Historical Society where he was met with fewer requirements than the village. He merely had to prove the home was owned by Gerald Ford’s aunt, which was information he had already obtained from the Cook County Clerk’s Office proving she owned the home from 1913 to 1983. With support from the current homeowner, Panton hopes the plaque will be established and unveiled this summer.
Consistently reading presidential biographies helped shape Panton’s love of history and attending Oak Park and River Forest High School fostered his innate love of learning. Throughout his time as a student, Panton developed a deeper appreciation of other historical figures rooted in his community such as Ernest Hemingway and Percy Julian.
“I really do think the history department at OPRF really benefited me. It really had a great impact on my love of history,” said Panton.
While stressors of attending law school in Washington, D.C. put the timeline of his presentation on hold, Panton says he is now ready and excited to present Gerald Ford’s life story and adventures in Oak Park. Panton’s presentation, “Gerald Ford: Oak Park’s First President” will be available through the Oak Park River Forest Museum via Zoom on Friday, May 27 at 11 a.m.