Ford letter, rug signs of era that is long gone

December 29, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

The letter on White House stationery to the Baltimore businessman is signed, "Sincerely, Jerry Ford." Not President Ford, not even Gerald R. Ford -- just Jerry Ford.

When presidents die, it also seems like the death of their era. You've probably noticed in nearly every story about President Ford this week some variant of the word "decency." As in, how Ford restored it first to the vice presidency, to which he was appointed in 1973 after Spiro Agnew resigned in scandal, and then the presidency, when, less than a year later, he took over for Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate.

But it is also a word that is being applied to him personally, this president whose simple, common decency now seems -- in this era of shrewdly packaged politicians -- to be neither simple nor common. He may have been parodied by a pratfalling Chevy Chase for his physical clumsiness, but at least he would never be stuck with a label like "Tricky Dick" or "Slick Willie."

I was thinking about this when Norman Shillman showed me the letter his father, Albert, had received from Ford in October 1974, just a couple of months after he became president. It's a thank-you note for a gift that the new president had not received yet but had caught wind of through his family's grapevine -- a hand-hooked rug that his sister-in-law was making for him to use in his new office in the White House.

Albert Shillman died in 1987, and Ford this week, but the story of this fleeting intersection of their lives is still a charming one -- and one that speaks to what Shillman's son Norman calls "a different era."

It begins with Ellen Ford, who is married to Dick Ford, the former president's brother. She used to make rugs as a hobby, and when her brother-in-law became president she thought she'd make one in the design of the seal of the office. She called the company whose rug-making kits she always used, the Baltimore-based Shillcraft, and ended up speaking with its president, Albert Shillman.

Already, you can see what Norman Shillman means by "a different era." Ellen Ford didn't get stuck in some circular, customer-service 800-number that, if it's answered by a human at all, it's usually someone in Bangalore, India, but got the head of the company on the line.

Ellen Ford explained that she was hoping the presidential seal could be duplicated on a canvas mat that she could then latch-hook. Albert Shillman immediately agreed to send a picture of the seal to the company in England that made its kits, where the design was transferred onto a mat that he then forwarded with all the necessary yarn to Ellen Ford.

"He was such a sweetheart," Mrs. Ford said yesterday, speaking over the pounding of a new floor being installed in her winter home in Naples, Fla. She and her husband were getting ready to leave for Washington today for the former president's state funeral.

When the package arrived, though, Mrs. Ford was shocked. Rather than the little rug she envisioned, the mat was 6 feet in diameter. Apparently to get all the details of the seal, with its eagle holding an olive branch and arrows and surrounded by a circle of 50 stars, it had to be that big -- and, she feared, costly.

"These rugs are expensive -- they're all wool," she said. "But there was no charge. It was all donated."

Except for the labor, that is. "It took me almost four months to do that damn thing," she said with a laugh. "It was so big, I was so excited after all the navy [background], when I got to the eagle's foot."

The rug had its 15 minutes of fame -- The Sun and other media did stories on it, even then realizing the homespun nature of both the gift and the president, and it sometimes turned up in the background of photographs of the president, who hung it on the wall of a study off the Oval Office in the White House.

"My father was a great salesman," said Norman Shillman, who worked for his father's company.

Albert Shillman, who was born in Russia but moved to Baltimore when he was about 5, was a yarn wholesaler who began a mail-order company selling latch-hook rug kits about 60 years ago, his son said. (How that happened is another interesting story, from yet another different era -- the elder Shillman was aboard the Queen Mary in 1948, returning home from a trip to England, and happened to meet a British man trying to expand his company of rug-making kits to the U.S.) Shillcraft built a new headquarters at 500 N. Calvert St. that opened in 1973, the construction of which was duly noted by the newspaper based across the street.

At its peak, Shillman said, the company had about 225,000 regular customers -- a savvy New York advertising firm managed to get it featured on the Today show, and companies like Disney licensed Shillcraft to use its characters -- but as more women left home to work, crafts like rug-making went into decline, he said. (Thousands of unfinished Shillcraft canvases remain stored in thousands of closets, he joked.) His family got out of the business -- it was sold it to an employee who keeps it going -- and its former headquarters is now a state office building.

"Nothing is forever," Shillman said.

Well, maybe a Shillcraft rug. Ellen Ford said her brother-in-law took the rug with him when he left the White House and hung it on the wall of his office in California. Now, she says, she'll ask her sister-in-law Betty if it should go to Ford's presidential museum in Grand Rapids.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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