Betty Ford Center's Messy Path After Former First Lady’s Death

Vicious infighting at the rehab center has driven away donors and pushed the Ford family out of any direct role.

Betty Ford Center / Reuters / Landov

In the end, Betty Ford had the last word from the grave. The former first lady, never one to pull her punches, removed the longtime director of the famed rehab center she founded from the list of eulogists before she died. It was a snub few could have missed.

But in case anyone did, John Schwarzlose dashed off an email the day after the memorial service that stunned a number of the center’s alumni. “As the president/CEO, I sat in the second row from the back of the church. Very strange,” he complained, openly blaming Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, for the slight.

Ford’s death in July has reopened an 18-month rift between her loyalists and Schwarzlose, who for 29 years has led the iconic Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Bales was ousted as chairman last year, and unhappy alumni are canceling donations and pledges. As the center gets ready to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, documents and interviews with a dozen former board members and alumni make clear that the 93-year-old Ford was unhappy with the clinic’s direction.

According to those close to her, Ford was broken-hearted when her daughter and handpicked successor lost her leadership post. Bales left the board six months later; she declined to be interviewed for this article. Today there are no Fords directly involved with the center.

“Having been involved in politics all those many years with my husband, I thought I was thick skinned about such things, but I never expected that a majority of the Betty Ford Board would find itself so misguided,” the former first lady wrote to another ousted board member last year. Ford did bequeath $500,000 to the center.

At issue has been a succession plan to replace Schwarzlose sometime after he turned 60, a move sources said had been discussed for years. Ford wrote in a letter to the board last year that she “wholeheartedly” backed the plan. But Schwarzlose, 62, said in an interview that Ford never directly asked him to leave and “if she had … I would have moved my stuff out that day.” And so he wouldn’t budge. He also questioned the authenticity of the letter, saying: “Having worked with her for 25 years we knew how she worked.”

Ford founded the no-frills center near Palm Springs in 1982, after battling her own alcoholism and drug addiction. She quickly turned it into the preeminent, cutting-edge facility in the field, serving celebrities and blue-collar workers alike. Elizabeth Taylor famously met her eighth husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky, at the center. Others who have acknowledged being among the 97,000 patients who have passed through include Chevy Chase, Drew Barrymore, Billy Joel, and Liza Minnelli.

“Hello, my name’s Betty Ford, and I’m an alcoholic and drug addict,” she would say in welcoming patients.

Ford for years showed up at the center on a daily basis to talk to patients, give lectures, and listen to problems. Many of the alumni say they feel they owe their lives to Ford personally—not just to the program. The result is that some are angry over what they see as mistreatment of the Ford family and Betty’s legacy.

One alumnus canceled a pledge of more than $1 million to the Betty Ford Institute, according to two sources. Randle Phelps, a Las Vegas developer and alumnus, said he canceled his $150,000 pledge.

“This is a story of betrayal,” says Phelps. “Have you ever almost died? Well, we have and we don’t forget the lady who saved our lives. Schwarzlose’s behavior has been self-serving, disloyal, and disrespectful.”

So incensed was another alum by what he called Schwarzlose’s “cruel and heartless email” after the service that he shot back another well-circulated note in response. “If Mr. Schwarzlose were a recovering person, he certainly would have understood how completely inappropriate it was to shine a light on himself,” wrote Geoffrey Mason, who replaced the CEO on the program.

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“Rather than joining in a shared sorrow and joy at having known Betty and now having to say goodbye, Mr. Schwarzlose chose in his email instead to complain about the location of his seat in St. Margaret’s!!!”

For his part, Schwarzlose said he regretted sending the email.

“The problem was that I was so overwhelmed with the way my family was treated. Not inviting my wife and three kids was mean-spirited” he said, noting that Ford was godmother to one of his children.

“I should have never put that in an email. I got burned. The day was about Betty—not about me sitting in the back.”

Schwarzlose seemed baffled why anyone would question his loyalty to Ford, and his loyalty to her mission. “We were joined at the hip for 25 years,” he said. “I’m totally committed to her vision. The board wants Betty’s vision to stay alive. She’s the reason that we’re the best in the world.”

Not all alumni have been engaged in the recent tensions, but neither are they aware that the Fords are no longer involved in the clinic. Leonard Buschel went through the clinic in 1994 and credits it with saving his life. He makes the point that for younger patients today, Betty Ford is just a name, and her death won’t affect the center.

The Desert Sun first reported the tension between the center and the Fords last year, and has stayed on the story relentlessly. Yet remarkably few outside its rehab community are aware of it. Several former Ford White House aides, who remain close to the Ford family, said they were unaware that Susan Bales had been pushed off the board.

A month after Betty Ford died, the Sun admonished the center in a strongly worded editorial headlined “Betty Ford Center, family must heal to heal others.” The paper questioned the center’s decision not to put out a statement following Ford’s death extolling her contributions and further suggested it face up to the friction and resolve it. “Betty Ford was an addict. And she knew it. That’s the first step. The Betty Ford Center is in pain. They need to know it.”

The editorial prompted 20 alumni to sign a letter to the board chairman, asking whether care was being compromised because of the internal strife. “We are understandably concerned about [the center’s] health and welfare,” they wrote.

In her book, Betty: A Glad Awakening, Ford credits Susan with orchestrating an intervention in 1982, after the family became concerned with her drinking, addiction to prescription drugs, and erratic behavior. After being treated at a naval hospital, Ford emerged believing there was a need for residential treatment facility outside a hospital setting. The center was one of the first of its kind, and the name Betty Ford became synonymous with rehab and recovery. Her unprecedented candor made it OK for other high-profile people to discuss their addictions.

Ford remained chairman of the board until 2005, when she handed the reins to her daughter, who had served on the board for more than a decade.

By all accounts, trouble started brewing in 2009, when Bales moved to act on the secession plan, after an outside advisory firm told the board that top salaries at the center were bloated by nonprofit industry standards. Schwarzlose’s compensation package was $630,000 at that time, according to IRS filings. The most recent filing for FY 2009–10 puts his earnings at $490,000.

At the same time, Ford asked board member Mason to put together an internal committee to develop a plan for an orderly transition. Although there was no expressed dissatisfaction with Schwarzlose, the Fords believed the time was right for change. There was also an urgency to move because another executive, who was being eyed to succeed Schwarzlose, was being courted by a rival clinic.

The plan that Ford and her allies came up with was to elevate Schwarzlose to a newly created job that would allow him to be an ambassador for the center—but not run the day-to-day operations. Schwarzlose wasn’t interested, and in a power play, was able to garner enough board votes to save himself. In May 2010, Schwarzlose’s allies on the board displaced Bales as chairman. “I understand that Susan maybe wanted her own person, but that’s not what the board wanted,” said Schwarzlose.

Despondent over the turn of events, Ford asked her sons, Mike, Steve, and Jack, to try to smooth over tensions with the center. Some of the principals met at an airport, and center officials broached getting one of the sons on the board.

In an interview, Steve said neither he nor his brothers could make the time commitment that sitting on the board required—but that they support the center unequivocally.

“Do I think it’s necessary to have a family member on the board? Probably not. Do I think it would be good? Probably,” Steve said. “The important thing is that they carry out Mom’s legacy and vision of healing people and transforming lives…The half-million dollars she left speaks volumes.”