Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Gerald Ford: Eagle Scout

by Richard Gunderman, IUPUI

Perhaps the most remarkable Boy Scout Annual Awards Dinner in scouting history took place at the Sheraton-Park Hotel in Washington, DC, on the evening of December 2, 1974.  The Boy Scouts of America organization was riding high at the time, having just reached the highest number of youth participants in its history, about 4 million, a number which has since declined to about 1.2 million. The event, attended by 1,500 people, stood out because a special person had been chosen to receive the annual Scouter of the Year Award.  Beginning his remarks at 9:41 pm, he would have up to 14 minutes to reflect on the role of scouting in his life and the lives of the tens of millions of other youths who had participated in its programs.  The honoree, of course, was Gerald R. Ford, 38th President of the United States and the only president to have earned scouting’s highest rank, Eagle Scout.

Ford began his remarks by affirming one of scouting’s best-known sayings, “Once a scout, always a scout.”  Ford light-heartedly cited his continued love of the outdoors, the fact that he still knew how to cook for himself, at least breakfast, and the fact that he could still be seen, at least on occasion, in short pants.  But then he got down to business, admitting that some of his contemporaries found in the way he was conducting himself as president evidence that he was still too much of a boy scout.  The Scout Law, Ford reminded the audience, states that a scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”  And those who take the Scout Oath pledge on their honor to do their best “to do their duty to God and country, to obey the scout laws, to help other people at all times, and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

Comparing the virtues fostered by scouting and the responsibilities of the presidency, Ford then declared, “If these are not the goals the people of the United States want their president to live up to, then I must draw this conclusion: either you have the wrong man, or I have the wrong county.  And I don’t believe either to be true.”  He continued, “I truly believe the ideals and aspirations of all Americans and all boy scouts are one, and I will continue to use these ideals as a guide and compass in all of my official duties.  I think our goal should be more boy scouts in government, not less.”  Ford then recalled one of the proudest moments of his youth, the ceremony at which he was awarded the Eagle Scout badge, which he still had in his possession, and the promise he made himself that day never to dishonor it.  Scouting had played a vital formative role, not only in Ford’s early years, but throughout his life. 

To understand why scouting was so important to Ford, we need to recall the circumstances of his youth.  He was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr in 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska.  His biological father battled alcoholism and abused both his wife and newborn son, so his mother, Dorothy, left him just 16 days after Ford’s birth, eventually relocating to the home of her parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  She divorced him later that year, gaining full custody of her son.  In 1917, she married Gerald R. Ford, Sr., whose family owned a varnish company, and Leslie L. King, Jr became Gerald R. Ford, Jr.  Ford grew up with three younger half-brothers.  His adoptive father fostered a tight-knit family that operated by three rules: “Tell the truth, work hard, and come to dinner on time.”  Running the family business during the depression, he kept the operation afloat by paying employees $5 per week, the same salary he paid himself.

The elder Ford was active in community service, especially with youth.  He helped serve disadvantaged young people through the formation of the Youth Commonwealth.  He encouraged each of his sons to join the Boy Scouts and helped to lead the local troop.  He loved football and encouraged his sons to participate.  Later, when Ford was a junior in high school, his biological father appeared in Grand Rapids and invited him to relocate with him to Wyoming, but Ford declined, preferring to remain in town with his family and the man he had always known as his father.  Reflecting on Ford Sr.’s role in his early life, Ford would later write, “He was the father I grew up to believe was my father, the father I loved and learned from and respected.  He was my dad, and he was one of the truly outstanding people I ever knew in my life.” 

In high school, Ford established himself as a sports standout, captaining the football team, garnering selection as “All-City,” and attracting the attention of college recruiters.  His high school principal helped him secure a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he played center and linebacker and helped the team secure two national titles.  Recalling one especially memorable 1934 game, when Michigan held eventual champion Minnesota scoreless through the entire first half, Ford recalled the convergence of the virtues of scouting and athletics, saying “During 25 years in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, I often thought of the experiences before, during, and after that game.  Remembering them has helped me face many a tough situation, take action, and make every effort possible, despite adverse odds.”

Ford the athlete again drew on the lessons of scouting when Michigan hosted Georgia Tech at the Big House.  Ford’s roommate on the team was a black player named Willis Ward, who had been Michigan High School Athlete of the Year, set national records in track, and would garner All-American honors in college three times.  Only the second black player to earn a varsity letter in Michigan football, Ward’s race led Georgia Tech to declare that their squad would not take the field if he played.  Ford reportedly not only refused to play but threatened to quit the team if Michigan bowed to such pressure.  However, Ward volunteered to sit the game out and asked Ford to play, which he reluctantly agreed to do. Ford’s attitude reflected the scouting principle that all people bear the same dignity, regardless of their creed or color.

When Ford graduated college with a degree in economics, he received offers to play professional football from both the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers.  But Ford had his eyes set on life after football, so he took an assistant coaching position at Yale University, planning to apply to the law school there.  Beginning his studies in 1938, he was also appointed head football coach of the junior varsity squad.  After graduation, he joined a Grand Rapids law firm before, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he enlisted in the US Navy.  Ford was placed in a training school but sought active duty and served aboard the USS Monterey in the Pacific theater.  In addition to supporting many air strikes and land actions, the ship was also damaged by a typhoon that caused a major fire on deck.  Ever the faithful scout, Ford went below deck to assess the situation and help to ensure that the fire was extinguished. 

Scouting virtues served Ford well throughout his political career.  First elected to Congress in 1948, he was selected as House Minority Leader in 1964, earning a reputation as a reconciler of the opposed.  By 1973, an atmosphere of deep distrust, even cynicism toward government, had developed in the US.  Misrepresentations concerning the Vietnam War, the financial misdeeds of Vice President Spiro Agnew, and the burgeoning scandal around Watergate had left many Americans deeply disillusioned.  With Agnew’s resignation, President Nixon sought the advice of Congress concerning a replacement, and Ford’s sterling character garnered him essentially unanimous support.  Little did Ford know that less than a year later, Nixon would resign.  What Ford had thought would serve as a “nice conclusion” to his career, the vice presidency, suddenly propelled him into the presidency in 1974. 

The lifelong Eagle Scout was just what the country needed.  Nixon was scheming and duplicitous.  Ford, by contrast, was regarded by all as honest and trustworthy.  Over his decades of public service, he had proven himself to be a man of integrity.  Before Nixon resigned, his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, visited the vice president to see if he would agree, if Nixon stepped down, to pardon him.  On the one hand, Ford knew that Nixon’s resignation was necessary, and that a protracted prosecution would only further deepen the nation’s malaise.  On the other hand, he knew that any such deal would be deeply problematic, miring his presidency in corruption from the outset.  So Ford declined Haig’s proposal.  A month after assuming office, Ford pardoned Nixon.  Ford then testified before Congress, telling them, with the forthrightness of a Boy Scout, that there had been no deal – “Period.” 

The boy scout shines through in many of Ford’s remarks over his career.  In addressing the US Senate in 1973, he said, “I am not a saint, and I am sure I have done things I might have done better or differently or not at all.  I have also left undone things that I should have done.  But I believe and hope that I have been honest with myself and others, that I have been faithful to my friends and fair to my opponents, and I have tried my very best to make this great government work for the good of all Americans.”  Later that year, after having been sworn in as vice president, he stated humbly, “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.”  Upon being sworn in as president a year later, he said, “I have not sought this enormous responsibility, but I will not shirk it….  Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws, not of men.  Here the people rule.”  No finer words were ever spoken by a scout.

Richard Gunderman is John A Campbell Professor of Radiology; Bicentennial Professor; and Chancellor’s Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, Philanthropy, and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and a contributing writer for The Atlantic.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Given the declining rates of membership in the Boy Scouts, there any institution in America today comparable to the Boy Scouts of Ford’s age? What institution is best positioned to cultivate the virtues highlighted by the BSA?
  2. Why did Ford’s boy scout experience prepare him so well for later life?
  3. Why is self-denial and sacrifice such as important feature of leadership?

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