As appearing in the Delaware Online – Opinion Contribution on July 19, 2018 link
President Gerald Ford was defined by character, integrity
July 14 is the birthday of President Gerald R. Ford, born in 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. Character and integrity defined Jerry Ford’s long life in private and in his decades of public service.
Jerry’s father left him and his mother when Jerry was 2 weeks old. Jerry’s mother moved them to live with her parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She eventually met and married Rudolph Ford, and Jerry took his new father’s name as his own (Jerry was born Leslie Lynch King Jr.).
Ford was a football star in high school, going on to play center for the then (as now) national powerhouse University of Michigan Wolverines. During Ford’s years at Michigan, the football team won two national titles, but it was during one of Michigan’s worst football seasons ever in 1934 that young Ford showed the qualities that would characterize his life.
Ford’s best friend on the team was Willis Ward, an African-American from Detroit and former Michigan high school athlete of the year. Ford and Ward were the same year and had always roomed together during the team’s road trips. The two players stand next to each other in the 1934 team photo.
In the 1934 season, Michigan agreed to host Georgia Tech for a game in November. As the game date drew closer, Georgia Tech insisted that they would call off the game if Willis Ward played: The Georgia team would not take the field with a black player on it.
Ford was incensed, as were many at Michigan. Ford decided not to play if Ward did not play.
Ward eventually convinced Ford to play — and to play his best game of the season — as the most defiant way to counter racism. Ford and the rest of the Michigan team rose to the occasion, beating Georgia Tech in the only game Michigan would win that season.
The story of that game and Ford and Ward’s friendship was recently turned into a play, titled “Victors of Character.”
After Michigan, Willis Ward went on to law school, eventually serving as the first African-American probate judge in Wayne County, Michigan.
In 1976 Ford was the first president to recognize Black History Month, calling upon Americans to “… seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
No doubt President Ford was thinking of his friend Willis Ward when he uttered those words.
Many thought Jerry Ford would go on to play professional football after college, but instead he chose to go to Yale Law School, working as a coach there to help pay his way. Leaving his fledgling law firm to join the Navy in 1942, Ford served with distinction as a lieutenant commander in the Pacific.
After returning to law practice in Grand Rapids, Ford ran for Congress in 1948. To the surprise of many, he won, beginning at age 35 his first of 13 terms serving Michigan in Congress, ending his congressional career as House minority leader.
Ford’s personal life was equally successful. He married Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren, the charismatic, spirited woman whom so many Americans came to admire as Betty Ford.
Ford’s political career culminated in his appointment to the vice presidency (to replace the resigned Spiro Agnew of Maryland) and his assumption of the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974.
Ford’s legacy lives on today, although his achievements in public service and his personal qualities deserve far more attention.
Ford learned his commitment to public service early, earning the rank of Eagle Scout (the only president to achieve that mark). Putting his country first above his political life, Ford made the unpopular decision to pardon Nixon in order to help heal the nation. That decision may well have cost Ford the 1976 election, but he chose to do, as he always did, what he believed was in the best interests of the country.
While many remember President Ford mainly for the Nixon pardon, Ford’s life and presidency swept a great arc of history and accomplishments, accomplishments always marked by his characteristic good humor, humility and clear conscience to do the right thing.
The quality of a great leader can often be judged by the quality of the people who surround him or her. Ford, never one threatened by the outstanding merits of others, attracted a constellation of respected advisers who would go on to some of the highest leadership positions in the nation over the subsequent three decades.
The newest aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet launched in 2017, and is aptly named the USS Gerald R. Ford. The carrier recognizes the man for the full sum of his life and accomplishments with its ship’s motto of “Integrity at the Helm,” a fitting tribute to an exceptional American.