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California mourners say farewell to Ford

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NEW: Memorial service held in Southern California church
U.S. Postal Service will suspend mail service next Tuesday
• U.S. stock exchanges will be closed Tuesday
• State funeral Saturday evening; other services in Washington, Michigan
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PALM DESERT, California (CNN) -- The wooden casket bearing the body of former President Gerald Ford arrived Friday afternoon under military escort at the Palm Desert church where he and his wife worshipped on Sundays after they left the White House.

The steps of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, which Ford and his wife, Betty, have attended for 30 years, were lined with an honor guard representing all the military services.

As his wife and other relatives looked on, pallbearers carried the late president's flag-draped casket into the church. Nearby, a military band played the poignant hymn, "O God, Our Help In Ages Past." (Watch the solemn ceremony Video)

Ford, who died this week at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, had asked for simple funeral ceremonies, with a motorcade instead of a horse-drawn carriage and no military flyover. He requested that the University of Michigan fight song be played, said his friend, Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan. (Watch how ceremonies will span the country Video)

The 38th president starred on the University of Michigan football team, then went to Yale, where he served as assistant coach while earning his law degree.

A private prayer service and visitation at the church lasted until about 1:15 (4:15 ET), followed by a public viewing until 4:20 p.m. (7:20 p.m. ET).

On Sunday his body will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. Ford's funeral service will be in Washington at the National Cathedral on Tuesday, which President Bush has designated as a day of mourning for Ford.

Bush's order triggers the closure of all federal offices except those necessary for national security. Major U.S. stock exchanges also are expected to be closed Tuesday in Ford's honor. The U.S. Postal Service said it would suspend delivery that day.

"I call on the American people to assemble on that day in their respective places of worship, there to pay homage to the memory of President Ford," Bush wrote in a proclamation issued Thursday. "I invite the people of the world who share our grief to join us in this solemn observance."

Ford will be buried Wednesday on a hill near the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Ford grew up.

Flags fly at half-staff in tribute

In a brief address to the nation Wednesday, Bush called Ford a "great man" who was a "true gentleman."

Ford became president after Richard Nixon resigned the office in 1974 during the scandal surrounding the burglary of Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel. (Watch Alexander Haig recall the Ford years Video)

"He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil," Bush said. "For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most."

In Ford's honor, Bush ordered U.S. flags at all federal government buildings to fly at half-staff for 30 days.

Former President Carter, who defeated Ford in the 1976 presidential race, said Ford "frequently rose above politics by emphasizing the need for bipartisanship and seeking common ground on issues critical to our nation."

"I will always cherish the personal friendship we shared," Carter said. (Watch admirers speak about Ford Video)

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Ford "assumed office during one of the greatest times of challenge for our nation and provided Americans with the steady leadership and optimism that was his signature."

Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the incoming Senate majority leader, said Ford "was a devoted public servant who led our nation out of one of its darkest hours with grace and bipartisanship."

'Our long national nightmare is over'

Ford was the least likely of presidents, a man brought to power by unprecedented circumstances without seeking the office, at a time when Americans -- reeling from the Watergate scandal -- were disillusioned and weary.

During his famous address to the nation after assuming office in August 1974, he tried to set a tone of reconciliation and renewal, telling his fellow Americans that "our long national nightmare is over." (Full story)

Nearly a month later, Ford announced his decision to pardon Nixon, saying he hoped his act would "shut and seal this book" on Watergate. (Full story)

His enormously controversial decision to pardon Nixon is widely blamed for costing him the 1976 election, which was one of the closest presidential races in U.S. history. (Read e-mails about Ford's presidency and the pardon)

At 93, Ford was the nation's oldest surviving former president and the only president and vice president never to be elected to either office. (Full story)

His death leaves three surviving former presidents: Bill Clinton, 60, George H.W. Bush, 82, and Carter, 82.

Ford is survived by his wife, Betty, 88; three sons, Michael, Jack and Steven; and a daughter, Susan.

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King on July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska. When he was 2 weeks old, his parents divorced, and his mother moved to Grand Rapids, where he grew up. His mother remarried, and he was adopted and renamed after his stepfather, Gerald Rudolph Ford.

After serving on an aircraft carrier in the Navy during World War II, Ford was elected to the U.S. House in 1948 as a Republican, representing a district that included Grand Rapids. He spent 25 years in Congress, working his way up to minority leader in 1965.

Ford's ascendancy to the White House was arguably the most unlikely in U.S. history. In October 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to tax evasion. Nixon, ensnared in the rising Watergate scandal, asked the well-respected Ford to leave Congress to replace Agnew, and he accepted.

In September 1974, Ford granted Nixon a pardon, sparing the former president the prospect of going to prison. The public and political backlash was angry and bitter, with Ford accused of making a tawdry deal with Nixon to secure the White House for himself.

Ford always denied that any deal had been struck. But the pardon colored the rest of his presidency.

In the fall of 1975, Ford's presidency was rocked by two assassination attempts within less than three weeks. (Watch how history could have been different Video)

Even though he hadn't sought the presidency, Ford decided he wanted to stay in the White House and ran for election to a full term in 1976. It was an uphill battle from the start, and it ended in defeat to Carter.

Ford: Iraq war justifications 'big mistake'

Ford kept a relatively low profile in his life after the presidency, rarely commenting publicly on his successors.

But in a 2004 interview never before published until this week, Ford told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward that Bush and his chief advisers "made a big mistake" with their justifications for the Iraq war.

"I don't think, if I had been president -- on the basis of the facts as I saw them publicly -- I don't think I would have ordered the Iraqi war," Ford said in a tape of the interview.

Woodward told CNN's Larry King the interview was not to be used until he had written a planned book about Ford or until the former president died. (Full story)

Asked to respond to Ford's comments, deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said the administration and Bush are "focused on grieving" right now and "keeping the family in our prayers."

Betty Ford waits Friday for her husband's casket to be moved into the church.



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12:20 p.m. PT: Ford's casket arrives at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California

12:30 p.m. PT: Private family service

1:15 p.m. PT: Private visitation for close friends, guests

4:20 p.m. PT: Ford's body will lie in public repose overnight at St. Margaret's

Source: Gregory D. Willard, longtime Ford family representative

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