JULY 8, 1974
As athletic director aboard the USS Monterey during World War II, Lieut. Comdr. Gerald Ford would have loved to have set up a football field on board the 622-foot light aircraft carrier. Ford, a star center at Michigan from 1932 to '34, didn't have enough room, however, so he settled for converting the forward elevator into a basketball court. His goal remained the same: to use sports to keep his shipmates' morale up and their minds off their uncertain futures.
Almost 60 years later the nation's 38th president has a strong opinion regarding the temporary shutdown of American sports in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I think both amateur and professional sports handled the crisis appropriately," says Ford, 88. "To have teams continue competing under that atmosphere would have been a serious mistake." Indeed, Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy might have had to change its name had the Wolverines dared to play their scheduled football game against Western Michigan on Sept. 15.
Ford carries so much weight in Ann Arbor that he could probably stand alongside Wolverines football coach Lloyd Carr on any fall Saturday and call plays, but he opts to watch on TV. "I don't go to games anymore," says Ford, a die-hard Michigan fan whose number 48 jersey was retired in 1994. "People want to shake my hand, ask me questions, talk to me, so they divert me from what I want to do, which is watch the game."
Ford, who swims twice a day and plays an occasional round of golf, suffered a mild stroke in August 2000 at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. His full schedule—including regular speaking engagements—and sweets-rich diet were taking their toll. "Eight days in the hospital gave me a lot of time to think," he says. "I am much more conscious of what I eat now." Ford has focused his postrecovery energy on trying to increase stroke awareness nationwide. He and wife Betty are determined to point out the importance of heart and stroke research and preventive medicine. Ford also eased back into politics last January, when he and former president Jimmy Carter were named honorary co-chairs of an election-reform committee studying ways to modernize and make uniform the processes used in federal elections.
Ford hasn't lost his appreciation for athletics and their role in American society. "Sports are important for our nation's character," he says. "The unfortunate incidents in New York and Washington shouldn't change our way of life."