Gerald Ford (48) and Willis Ward (61). Images courtesy of Bentley Historical Library.
As the University moves closer to its bicentennial in 2017, it is reflecting on its past. It is fitting, then, that faculty in LSA are offering undergraduate courses that examine the various chapters of campus history. The University Record highlighted courses that deal with the evolving role of women students, the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and the moral quandaries of politics and academic freedom.
Gary D. Krenz, adjunct lecturer in philosophy and executive director of U-M’s Bicentennial Office, teaches the course “The University of Michigan: A Moral Institution?”
“Students will spend somewhere between three and five years at Michigan — perhaps longer if they stay on for graduate school,” Krenz said. “I ask them, ‘What is good, right and just about Michigan, and what is not?'”
One topic the class explores is the 1934 benching of U-M football player Willis Ward because of his race. Ward was the only African-American on the team, and opponent Georgia Tech refused to take the field if Ward played. The event, chronicled in the late fall 2011 issue of Michigan Alumnus magazine, remained not only in the University’s consciousness, but also that of Ward’s teammate—President Gerald Ford.
The documentary “Black and Blue” details the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech football game
Athletic Director Fielding Yost had been arranging for months with William Alexander, the famous head coach of Georgia Tech, for the game in Ann Arbor. Throughout the discussions, however, Alexander and the Georgia Tech staff explained that they refused to play against an African American, be it Ward or anyone else.
Yost—and eventually many others at U-M—evaded the issue. Word of Georgia Tech’s insistence and Michigan’s avoidance got out to the team, and morale plummeted over the summer. Ford took it particularly hard and eventually wrote to his father that he planned to quit. The only thing that eventually stopped him was Ward, who convinced him that he was only making things harder and that Ford would be a better friend by dropping it.
Ward earned an All-American honorable mention as a junior in 1933.
In the end, Michigan made Ward sit out the game. Michigan went from an undefeated season the year before to 1-7. The only win that year was against Georgia Tech, a game where Ford reportedly made sure his team sent several of the opponents out on stretchers. The Wolverines scored only 12 more points for the rest of the season, and all of them were tallied by Ward.
Both Ward and Ford were recruited to play pro football, but both chose a different path and went on to illustrious careers. Ward went to law school and became a judge in Wayne County, Michigan. He was appointed to the Michigan Public Service Commission by Michigan Gov. George Romney and served as chair.
Ford became a great U.S. Congressman and then, of course, U.S. president. His friendship with Ward is recognized for influencing the stand he took on civil rights and affirmative action.