Gerald Ford (1913- )*
Bill Long 11/19/06
[*Gerald Ford died about one month after I wrote this essay.]
Our Longest-Lived President
President Gerald Ford, who never was much on America's mind during his post-Presidency, has been in the news lately for two reasons. We have heard about his periodic health updates, which has led many to speculate that he is drawing to the end of a long and fruitful life. Then, we also learned last week that on November 12 he became the longest-living President in US History. Of course this statistic means relatively little,* but it gave me an occasion to think about him, the time I was within 10 feet of him, and that long-ago world in which I encountered him.
[Presidential trivia is an interesting diversion for the overeducated who have too much time on their hands. With respect to age issues, Ford passed Ronald Reagan in longevity to get to the # 1 position. Reagan lived 93 years 4 months--dying early in June 2004. The previous longest-living President was John Adams, who died at age 90 years and 8 months on July 4, 1826--he "co-died" with 83 year-old Thomas Jefferson. Herbert Hoover died at age 90 and 1 or 2 months in 1964. When I grew up in CT in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I remember pictures and newscasts talking about Hoover, and he always seemed to be a very, very old person. As a child, then, I speculated on whether his entire life was spent being old.]
Returning to GCTS in the mid-1970s
After I received my B.A. from Brown University (1974), I defied (rather than deified) the good advice of my teachers at Brown by attending an evangelical seminary, Gordon-Conwell, in South Hamilton, MA rather than following their suggestions-- to go to Harvard, Yale, or, if I wanted a really conservative option, Princeton. Everyone mispronounced GCTS' name in those days (and many still do), thinking somehow that the second word ought to be Cromwell because they have heard that there was a person named Cromwell somewhere "back there." But they are wrong. It is Gordon-Conwell. Russell Conwell would have been miffed. He was one of the most popular preachers in America, having preached the "Acres of Diamonds" sermon more than 5,000 times (allegedly), and he was the founder of Temple University in Philadelphia. In any case, GCTS was one of the three or four evangelical seminaries which would be instrumental in transforming the theological landscape of America so that the term "Evangelical" would become a household word by the mid-1980s. I supped up its religion as if it was my mother's milk.
One of the first people I met at GCTS in 1974 was a guy in the weight room. I was doing my workout and I needed a "spot" for my bench press routine. The other guy, a strikingly handsome blond guy about my age, spotted for me. We introduced ourselves to each other. I was Bill Long. He was Mike Ford. I learned later that he was Jerry's son, just as I learned later that one of the "Dave's" on campus was the son of a Supreme Court justice.
Mike and I didn't become fast friends, but we did share many classes and conversations together. One evening a professor of theology invited Mike and Gayle, me and my girl-friend (Judy) and one other couple to his house for a Saturday-evening dinner. The Secret Service guys had to, like the family dog, stay out in the car in the darkened street in front of Professor Lemmon's house. Mike was also in my preaching clinic, a group of about 15 students who learned from some expert preachers how to put together various kinds of oral messages. I was surprised when I entered law school teaching in 2003 that there was no equivalent seminar. You would think that lawyers, whose only reason for getting paid in the world is because they can manipulate words effectively, would be required to learn how to do so effectively, but they aren't. So, Mike was in my preaching clinic in 1976 or 1977. Judy (who was also in the clinic) and I decided that Mike was so much of a "normal" person that we would always try to "pitch" our words to him when we spoke. If Mike Ford could follow us, the normal American could. If he was touched, so would the "person in the pew." In this way I saw Mike, like his father Jerry, as the bellwether American, the Kansas City or St. Louis or wherever that marketers pick to see if their product will "fly." Mike was that kind of person.
The Secret Service
One of the realities of life on campus during those years, then, was the presence of the Secret Service. They didn't blanket the campus, but they always accompanied Mike (or Gayle, who wasn't a student), though they kept a respectful distance. They tried to "blend in" with the students, but since they always wore loose jackets, concealing their handguns, they stuck out like Democrats on the Board of Trustees. I have never seen such bored looks on anyone's faces as I saw on their faces when they had to sit through basic theology class. Anyone who thinks that the life of a Secret Service agent is glamorous has another think coming.
On one occasion a fellow student, the class clown, decided to have some fun with the agents. They were supposed always to keep Mike in their "lov" (line of vision), but usually they would let him go into the library to study and they would sit outside in the lobby, scrutinizing everyone that walked by. Tom, the clown, went out of the library once, passed the Secret Service guys, smiled curiously at them and said, "Wow, I don't know how it happened, but they really got the blond guy in there a few minutes ago." Never had anyone seen the Service guys jump up with more alacrity. They dashed into the library, barking orders into their walkie talkies, only to find Mike sitting tranquilly at his carrel, studying the very theology that bored us all to tears.
Gerald Ford at GCTS
Well, we all made it through the perils of seminary unscathed, except that some of the concepts inculcated would have to be pruned and discarded as time went on. President Ford was our graduation speaker. He had just lost the Presidential election seven months previously to Jimmy Carter, but still was flanked by an impressive entourage of people. The President of the Seminary, who was in his dotage at the time (I was student body President and he could never remember my name), was in his element as he introduced the President. As the academic procession wended its way to the front, the President passed next to me before descending a flight of stairs. Knowing his propensity for tripping and hitting people with errant golf balls, I momentarily held my breath. But he survived the stairs, gave a so-so commencement address--in which he mentioned how God seemed to be present to him in the White House--and then that was it.
Evangelicalism was still a relatively undiscovered phenomenon at the time, but it would soon break out of its quiescence. What was it that did it? The Roe v. Wade decision of the US Supreme Court. Though it was decided in Jan. 1973, it took about five years for Evangelicals/Fundamentalists to get up in arms to protest. Once they began protesting, they didn't stop. And the fight goes on...
So, that is my Sunday morning memory--of Gerald and Mike Ford, of the "Evangelical" phase of my life, of another time and place which has long disappeared in everything but in memory. Thanks be to God for memory.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long