President Gerald Ford: Early life and Career

About the early life and career of President of the United States Gerald Ford including his time in the Navy.



Career: At South High School in Grand Rapids, Ford's main interest was football: He was the star center on a team that won the State championship in his senior year. Though he showed little interest in student politics, he received a free trip to Washington as the winner of a movie theater's promotional contest for "the most popular high school senior." After graduation, Jerry's football coach arranged a scholarship for him at the University of Michigan. Ford maintained a "B" average in his course work, but he continued to focus most of his energies on football. In his senior year, he was named Michigan's Most Valuable Player, and selected as the All-Conference Center. Two professional football teams (the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions) made offers to Ford after his graduation, but he turned them down to accept a job as assistant football coach at Yale. After working 2 1/2 years to prove his skills to the Yale athletic establishment (he also coached freshman boxing), Ford approached the dean of Yale Law School and asked for permission to take some classes there. The law school agreed to admit Ford on a trial basis, but he did well enough in his studies to be allowed to continue. He took a light course load because he continued to be preoccupied with his coaching duties, and he didn't graduate until January, 1941, at the age of 27 1/2. At that point he returned to his proud family in Grand Rapids and set himself up in the practice of law, but his career was interrupted a few months later by U.S. entry into W.W. II. Ford enlisted in the Navy, where he was originally assigned to a physical training program and given responsibility for whipping new recruits into shape as quickly as possible. Later, the navy brass agreed to give Ford the battle assignment that he wanted, and in the South Pacific he won commendation from his superiors as a loyal and dependable "team player." Captain Harry Sears stated for the Navy's records that Ford ". . . was at his best in situations dealing directly with people because he commanded the respect of all with whom he came in contact."

Discharged from the Navy in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant commander, Ford returned to Grand Rapids and resumed his legal career. In his spare time, he was active in veteran's groups and took a mild interest in politics--his stepfather was serving as chairman of the County Republican Committee. In 1948, the "Reform" faction in local Republican politics was looking for a candidate to oppose the incumbent U.S. congressman--a mossback isolationist who was associated with the corrupt McKay machine. Though Ford's only prior political experience was a brief stint as a volunteer in the Willkie-for-President crusade in 1940, he seemed to be a logical man for the job: His reputation as a past football hero and his war record gave him stature in the community, and his "internationalism" (he was a supporter of the UN and the Marshall Plan) offered a strong contrast to the old-fashioned ways of the incumbent, Barney Jonkman. The Republican primary was all-important (no Democrat had won in the Grand Rapids district since 1910) and Ford campaigned tirelessly, pitching hay with farmers in order to get the chance to talk with them and meeting city voters at shopping centers and picnics. Confident of victory, Jonkman scornfully refused his young opponent's challenge to public debate, thereby handing Ford a key issue. In the primary, the 35-year-old Ford won by a vote of 23,632 to 14,341, and went on to easy victory over the Democrats in November.

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