For official presidential appearances, U.S. President Gerald Ford, a “Michigan man,” frequently asked the U.S. Marine Corps Band to play the University of Michigan’s college fight song, “Hail to the Victors,” in place of the traditional “Hail to the Chief” Presidential Anthem.
Ford, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., attended college at U-M in Ann Arbor and played football. He was the Wolverines’ center on the offensive line and played linebacker on defense.
He helped his team go undefeated and win national titles in 1932 and 1933. He was Michigan’s MVP in 1934.
Some 40 years later in 1975, imagine President Ford’s surprise when he arrived in Peking, China, and was greeted by a band of Chinese musicians who were belting out the melodic refrains of “Victory for MSU,” the Michigan State University fight song.
There was no whodunit mystery about it. With great pride, the jovial Peter Secchia, a businessman from Grand Rapids, Mich., and an MSU alumnus, took full credit for the “mix up.”
Peter Secchia spent a lot of time at the White House from 1974-77 as “a friend of the Ford family.”
Secchia said: “When the president went to China, the White House called me and said, ‘We don’t have the sheet music for the Michigan fight song.’ I said I’d get it to them right away...and I sent them the Michigan State fight song.”
Secchia got the better of President Ford once again when dignitaries gathered in 1978 to dedicate the Gerald R. Ford Freeway (Interstate 196) in western Michigan.
Secchia slyly rigged the unveiling of the large highway sign. It was covered with a Michigan colored (maize and blue) banner. When all the president’s men pulled the rope, however, it revealed not the highway sign, but a second banner – in the Michigan State colors (green and white).
Secchia, the clever prankster, said he has a videotape of the moment, showing former President Ford turn to Michigan Gov. William Milliken and muttering, “Where’s Secchia?”
Professional football was an option for Gerald Ford, after he graduated in 1935. The Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers both dangled offers. Earl Louis “Curly” Lambeau of the Packers sent Ford a letter, agreeing to pay him an annual salary of $1,540 ($110 per game for a 14-game season).
Ford once joked: “If I had gone into professional football, the name Jerry Ford might have been a household word today.”
Instead, Ford earned a law degree from Yale University in 1941 and began practicing law back in Grand Rapids. Pearl Harbor put his legal career on hold. Ford enlisted in the Navy in April 1942 and served four years in the South Pacific.
In 1948, Ford was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Ford would serve continuously in that chamber until President Richard Nixon tapped the Michigan congressman in 1973 to become Vice President Ford (replacing Spiro Agnew).
Ultimately, Watergate misdoings led to Nixon’s demise, and Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974.
Ford became president – the first person ever to occupy that office who had not been sent there by voters.
Immediately after taking the oath, President Ford appealed to the American public: “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers.”
Three other past U.S. presidents also donned varsity football jerseys while collegians. We’ll have to check the box scores.