An unexpected guest |

An unexpected guest

Former President Ford dined at Hazie Werner's, unannounced

— First, picture your mother when company arrives in the driveway unannounced. Then, picture your mother when the surprise guests turn out to be the former president and first lady of the United States.

It happened 13 years ago to the late Hazie Werner of Steamboat Springs, when the Fords stopped by on an August afternoon.

President Gerald R. Ford, who died Dec. 26 in Rancho Mirage, Calif., may have been the only U.S. president to visit Steamboat Springs. It’s difficult to say with certainty that he was the only one to visit here, but it’s a safe bet he was the only president to show up unannounced for lunch.

“She did what she always did,” Hazie’s son, Loris “Bugs” Werner, recalled Friday. “She looked around in the ice box for whatever and started making sandwiches.”

Ford, who lived in Vail for many years, came to Steamboat in 1993 to visit with friends and play a round of golf at the Sheraton Steamboat Golf Course. He never finished the 18 holes. That much is certain.

Less certain is the possibility that President Theodore Roosevelt came to the Yampa Valley on a big-game hunting trip. And it’s difficult to rule out the possibility that Dwight David Eisenhower might have snuck over Rabbit Ears Pass one day to fish for trout.

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Roosevelt was a noted big-game hunter who established a vast tract of public land that would come to be known as the Routt National Forest. His January 1901 trip to Meeker to hunt for cougars and lynx is documented in a letter he wrote to his children.

Did his hunting expedition extend as far as Steamboat Springs? It would have been a difficult winter journey by horseback and wagon.

Eisenhower was fond of golfing in Denver and frequently fished the Fraser River, 80 miles east of here. The president made Byers Peak Ranch the unofficial Western White House in the 1950s and was visited there by former President Hoover.

Ike easily could have made a day trip to Steamboat to fish. But good luck finding any documentation of such a visit.

Ford’s 1993 visit to Steamboat was to play golf with some Vail friends. They were hosted by Olympic skier and Steamboat resident Jim “Moose” Barrows. Betty Ford accompanied the former president, as did the wives of his golfing buddies. They went out for lunch while the men golfed.

The golfers gave up after 12 holes because of a steady rain. Doak and Skeeter (Werner) Walker, who weren’t playing golf that day but knew the Fords, spontaneously invited them to join them for lunch at the home they shared with her mother, Hazie, on the banks of Soda Creek.

Doak Walker, the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Methodist University, and Ford shared a Michigan football connection. Ford was a star lineman for the Wolverines in college, and Walker was a star running back with the Detroit Lions of the National Football League.

Loris Werner had met Gerald and Betty Ford in the mid-1960s when he was still a congressman from Michigan. Loris, also a Steamboat Olympian, used to stay with mutual friends when he competed in ski jumping in Iron Mountain, Mich. Congressman Ford and Betty sometimes attended the ski jumping meets.

Still, it came as a complete surprise when Ford showed up unannounced for lunch in 1993.

“I was puttering around in the small garage, and Doak and Skeeter pulled up in the driveway,” Loris recalled. “Then, these other two cars pulled up. It was just another day at Mother Werner’s house.”

Naturally, the presidential entourage that visited the Werner-Walker home that day included the Secret Service agents assigned to Ford. They produced one of Barrows’ favorite memories of the day.

“I’ll never forget this Secret Service agent who had an Uzi (or other automatic weapon) around her neck, and Hazie taking milk and cookies to her out in the driveway,” Barrows recalled with a laugh.

Loris said his mother didn’t understand why the Secret Service agents posted outside the home weren’t more friendly.

“She took them a plate and they turned her down,” he recalled.

Barrows had met Ford in about 1975 while he was still president. They were introduced by Ford’s daughter, Susan, who competed in Town Challenge ski races with Barrows in Vail.

“He and I just hit if off. I don’t know why we hit it off,” Barrows said. “We skied together a couple of times with mutual friends. I think he just accepted me because of those mutual friends.”

Barrows shared a love of golf with the president, and they golfed together in Vail in an era when there were only two courses in the Eagle Valley.

Barrows was invited to take in President Ford’s star-studded invitational golf tournament and only missed playing two events in 20 years.

But Barrows doesn’t like to make a big deal out of his casual friendship with the 38th president of the United States.

“I was his friend like 90 percent of the people in Vail were,” Barrows said. “He never forgot a face. He knew all the ski instructors and he knew lift operators.”

The last time Barrows saw Ford was about 18 months ago, when Barrows went to Palm Springs to play golf.

“I just bumped into him and he greeted me by my first name,” Barrows said. “To me, it was a big honor that a former president knew my name.”

Loris Werner remembers Ford as a regular guy.

“I think he was just a very humble person who was easy to talk to,” he said.

– To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

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