Wait. Gerald Ford lived in Oak Park? Yes. Just a minute

Gerald Ford was made 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 ran 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 about history and an interest in presidential biographies, Panton researched Ford’s biography on the website of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. After digging a bit, he was shocked to discover that one of the villages in his hometown had only been the home of the late president for a tiny bit during his first year.

Ford and her mother, Dorothy Ayer Gardner Ford, moved to Oak Park in 1913 after fleeing her abusive relationship with Ford’s father, Leslie Lynch King. For about two months, the couple moved to 410 N. Humphrey Ave., the home of Dorothy’s sister, Tannisse James, and her husband, Clarence James. While Ford’s stay in Oak Park was brief, photographic evidence compiled by Panton shows that he and his mother returned to visit family here numerous times after moving to their permanent home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

jonathan panton

“A common reaction I get is either initial disbelief that President Ford lived here, or surprise that no one knew, and then excitement to learn his story,” Panton said.

Motivated by these reactions, Panton contacted the Oak Park and River Forest Historical Society to find out if they were already aware of his findings. Unawareness of them sparked Panton’s enthusiasm to educate, leading him to create his “passion project”. He devoted his time and effort to developing a presentation that would inform Oak Park and surrounding communities of his findings.

For more awareness, Panton suggested the Village of Oak Park place a plaque in front of the house about Humphrey. The village denied his request because Ford did nothing of “historical significance” in the house.

“Even though Gerald Ford only spent a brief part of his life here, he still ultimately lived in a historic town. I really think the Village of Oak Park should at least recognize that and recognize a president of the United States for living here,” Panton said.

Determined to have a plaque placed at the house, Panton approached the Historical Society where he met with fewer demands than the village. He simply had to prove that the house belonged to Gerald Ford’s aunt, information he had already obtained from the Cook County Clerk’s office proving that she owned the house from 1913 to 1983. With the support of the current owner , Panton hopes the plaque will be established and unveiled this summer.

Constant reading of presidential biographies helped shape Panton’s love of history, and his attendance at Oak Park and River Forest High School nurtured his innate love of learning. Throughout his time as a student, Panton developed a deeper appreciation for other historical figures rooted in his community such as Ernest Hemingway and Percy Julian.

“I really think the history department at OPRF has really benefited me. It really had a big impact on my love of history,” Panton said.

While the stressors of attending law school in Washington, D.C. have suspended the schedule for his presentation, Panton says he is now ready and excited to present Gerald’s life story and adventures. Ford at 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.

Comments are closed.