By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated July 25, 2011 12:00 PM

Before the pink ribbons-before there could be pink ribbons-there was Betty Ford. It was 1974, less than two months after Richard Nixon’s resignation thrust Gerald Ford into the White House, when the new First Lady was diagnosed with breast cancer. The word “breast” was hardly spoken aloud, let alone on the news, but Ford went public about her mastectomy. “I once asked, ‘Why did you come out and discuss your cancer?’,” recalls friend Nancy Brinker, whose Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation would later make pink awareness ribbons ubiquitous. “She said, ‘People are put on earth to do things like this.'”

And she was just getting started. Ford, who died on July 8 at age 93, opened the Betty Ford Center for rehab after her own struggle with drinking and pills; for years she met with almost every patient. Recovering addicts like former congressman Patrick Kennedy call her a lifesaver: “She was the first to tackle the public stigma. She made it easier to seek treatment.”

A divorcee and dancer trained by Martha Graham, Elizabeth Bloomer Warren was 30 when she married Jerry Ford, a dashing lawyer running for Congress. They had four children and 13 terms in the U.S. House before the Watergate scandal landed him the vice presidency and then the top job-neither of which thrilled her. “Here’s somebody who thought her husband was going to retire, and then all heck broke loose,” says nephew Greg Ford.

A reluctant First Lady, perhaps, but a vivacious one who broke ranks with her husband’s GOP to speak out for the Equal Rights Amendment and legalized abortion, and didn’t let protocol trump her playfulness. On her last day in the White House in 1977, she and photographer David Hume Kennerly passed the empty Cabinet Room. “She said, ‘I’ve always wanted to dance on the Cabinet Room table,’ and she took her shoes off and hopped right on up there,” Kennerly says. “That was her. She went where other First Ladies have feared to tread.”