By Scott Jenkins
To call the recent cruise Timothy and Aleen Besmer took up the Potomac River a sentimental journey would be an understatement.
On June 10, the Rockwell couple boarded the USS Sequoia for a voyage to Mount Vernon, the home of President George Washington.
That in itself is special enough. The USS Sequoia Presidential Yacht, as it’s officially known, was, as the name implies, used by U.S. presidents starting with Herbert Hoover in 1931 until Jimmy Carter had it sold in 1977.
But this passage had one chief executive in particular in mind.
The Besmers hosted the children and grandchildren of President Gerald Ford, who died Dec. 26. And the cruise recreated one that Ford once told Besmer was his favorite among all those he took aboard the yacht. It was his first and one that he and Betty Ford took when he was a young congressman in the early 1960s, at the invitation of President John F. Kennedy.
Timothy Besmer, who is executive vice president of the company that now owns the yacht, wrote in a recollection of the event that he and Aleen wanted the June 10 voyage to “celebrate the life” of the late president, who he called “a longtime friend of the Besmers and an ardent supporter of their yacht.”
Besmer, who also owns a machine tool and engineering company based in Pennsylvania, said he began his relationships with past presidents when he met Richard Nixon while living in New Jersey in the early 1980s. The two became friends, and Nixon later introduced him to Ford, Besmer said.
It was also out of that friendship with Nixon that Besmer developed a passion for collecting presidential artifacts. As his collection has grown through the years, Besmer has made presentations to school groups, historical societies and others on the presidency and the various pieces of history he owns that are associated with it.
Ford had entrusted Besmer with a number of personal belongings to help with the educational efforts, he said.Besmer had already collected many artifacts connected to the Sequoia when, in 2000, a private investor bought the decommissioned vessel.
“Which is, of course, a presidential collectible in itself,” he said.
The Besmers, who formed the Sequoia Artifacts Preservation Foundation, merged that part of their collection with the Sequoia’s principal owner and formed the Sequoia Yacht Group, which can be privately chartered but also continues to be used by high-ranking government officials and visiting dignitaries. Several times a year, the Sequoia also hosts cruises for wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
On June 10, Ford’s children and the Besmers were joined by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who served under Ford and President George W. Bush, and Besmer’s mother, Constance Besmer, also of Rockwell.
“There was plenty of Secret Service protection as well,” Besmer wrote.
Besmer, who commutes to Washington for Sequoia events, said he started working with the office of former first lady Betty Ford to arrange the cruise. At 89 years old, Betty Ford’s health would not permit her to make the trip herself.
After gathering at the Sequoia’s berth in Washington D.C., the group boarded and sailed at noon following an opening prayer by the Rev. Dr. David Mosier, chairman of the International Clergy Congress, and remarks by Rumsfeld.
“The Ford children ó Michael, Steven, Jack and Susan Ford-Bales ó all said they felt the spirit of their father ‘sailing with them’ as they relived their trips aboard Sequoia while their father was president of the United States,” Besmer wrote.
The Sequoia is recognized by the Department of the Interior as a national historic site and has been designated a national treasure by Congress, which appropriated $2 million in 2004 in an effort to buy the yacht back.
Besmer’s Web site, www.sequoiayacht.us, features photos from the Sequoia’s history, including pictures of Kennedy’s last birthday party aboard the yacht, former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a fundraiser in honor of his late wife and former President Bill Clinton, who watched the final Bush-Gore debate from the yacht in 2000.
The Web site also contains pictures of Besmer with former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Slovakian Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and former Slovakian President Rudolph Schuster. Besmer said Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole are also among those who have cruised on the completely restored Sequoia.
But its June 10 voyage along the Potomac, to recreate a cherished memory for children and grandchildren of the man the nation knew as its 38th president and the Besmers called a friend, may be among the most special for the Rockwell residents.
“Tears were shed by the Ford family in remembrance of the former president,” Besmer wrote in his recollections of that day, “but much laughter was also heard.”
In addition to Besmer’s Web site, more information is available on the the Sequoia Presidential Yacht Group’s site, www.sequoiayacht.com.Contact Scott Jenkins at 704-797-4248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Scott Jenkins