Former Rep. William Ford, a liberal Democrat from Michigan who championed education and labor issues in his 30 years in the House of Representatives, died Saturday morning at his home in Ypsilanti Township of complications from a stroke he suffered about six weeks ago. He was 77.
Over the course of his three decades in Congress — from 1965 to 1995 — Ford served as chairman of both the Post Office and Civil Service Committee and the Education and Labor Committee. During that time Ford authored the Middle Income Student Assistance Act and helped pass the Family Medical Leave Act. In 1994, the Federal Direct Student Loan Program was named for him.
“He was a very gregarious and outgoing individual,” said Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a longtime friend of Ford’s who visited the former Congressman late Friday night before he died.
Ford was born in 1927 in Detroit to Scottish immigrant parents. After a tour in the Navy, Ford attended the University of Denver on the G.I. Bill. He earned his law degree in Denver and moved back to Michigan to practice law from 1951 to 1964. Ford served in the Michigan state Senate before being elected to Congress.
“I think in his legislative business he was best characterized in saying he was concerned about working families,” Dingell said. “He wanted to help those who most needed and deserved help.”
During his two terms as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Ford frequently penned op-ed pieces for Roll Call championing reform efforts for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and advocating for such educational assistance program as Pell Grants and Stafford Loans.
In one piece, published in December 1993, Ford wrote, “Our economic survival requires that our children receive far higher levels of education than we did. A failure to invest in them will doom the United States to a downward spiral in living standards that will leave us unable to compete in the global economy. But what we provide for our kids is not only an economic question. It is also a statement about our concern for our society and its values.”
“Working families had a real champion in Bill Ford,” recalled Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), whose friendship with Ford went back to 1967. “As a legislator he was very much rooted in his constituency and fought hard for opportunities for his constituents. He represented areas where a lot were blue collar workers lived and he wanted to make sure they had a fair shake on the job, a real educational opportunity.”
According to his hometown newspaper, The Ann Arbor News, when Ford retired at the end of 1994, the year Republicans won control of the House, Ford said “he was leaving at the right time — when his old-fashioned brand of liberal activist government appeared to be on the ropes.”
“He left over my objections,” admitted Dingell. “He was tough, he was funny, he was smart, he loved people, he liked to be with his friends.”
His friends “were typical of the southeast corner of Michigan, they were working folks. He loved to be with them and they loved having him around,” he added.
“He loved being a legislator, he never wanted to be anything else,” Levin added. “He was one of those persons who had a very strong presence in Washington and deep roots at home.”
Funeral services are being planned for both Michigan and Washington, Dingell said.
Ford is survived by a brother, sister, three children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.