Published: Jul 10, 2011 12:32 AM EDT
Updated: Jul 09, 2011 2:23 PM EDT

PALM DESERT, California-  Americans are mourning the loss of former first lady Betty Ford. She died last night with her family at her bedside.

She became the first lady in 1974 when Gerald Ford was sworn in as president. She opened her name safe clinic for alcohol and drug abuse in California in 1982.

Her life in the political spotlight started quickly after her marriage to Gerald Ford, who was elected to congress two weeks after their wedding. As first lady, she developed her own persona beyond the white house, and was known for speaking out on abortion rights and women in the workplace.

In the first year of her husband's presidency, she announced she had breast cancer and would undergo a mastectomy. But it is the Betty Ford Center for Substance Abuse that will be her greatest legacy.

Most Americans saw her for the first time in more than a decade at the funeral burial of her husband. It was a four day period of national mourning. Although she looked fragile, she never wavered. And the treatment center she helped create will be a memorial for generations to come.