William Clay Ford, the billionaire grandson of Henry Ford who owned the Lions, has passed away at the age of 88 from pneumonia in Grosse Pointe Shores. Ford was the only surviving grandchild of Henry Ford, and the youngest child of Edsel Ford. His impact of both the automotive industry and the National Football League will remain, as he helped to rejuvenate the Ford Motor Company in the 1950s and 60s as a top designer, developing many iconic cars, including his pet project, the Lincoln Continental Mark II, an update of his father’s original Continental. He was a member of the Board of Directors of Ford Motor Company for 57 years, retiring in 2005 while his son, William Clay Ford Jr., also the Lions vice-chairman, was CEO of the company.
William Clay Ford was born in Detroit March 14, 1925, the youngest of four to Edsel and Martha Ford. As a young boy, he took after his father, sitting beside his famous designer father and painting cars in watercolors. Very close to his famous grandfather, they once disappeared at a family Christmas party to shoot at paper targets out a window, and was taught to drive at the age of 10.
Ford attended a private school in Grosse Pointe and a prep school in Connecticut. He enrolled in naval air training at the University of Michigan after graduation, and served in the U.S. Navy Air Corps in the latter days of World War II. Following the war, he enrolled at Yale University, where he graduated from in 1949 with a bachelor of science degree in economics, along with seven varsity letters from captaining the varsity soccer and tennis teams.
In 1947, Ford married Martha Firestone, the daughter of Harvey Firestone. Together, they had four children – Martha, Sheila, William, and Elizabeth. Together they enjoyed the company of their 4 children, 14 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
The Ford Family Business
Ford was elected to the Board of Directors of Ford Motor Company in 1948, prior to his graduation from Yale. He held a multitude of executive positions before he was appointed to the position of vice-president and general manager of the Continental division in 1954, updating the car his father designed and overseeing the unveiling of the Continental Mark II in 1955. Ford was appointed the first chairman of the newly formed design committee in 1957 and held that position until he retired in 1989. Throughout the 1980s, Ford was elected to various executive roles inside Ford, including Vice-Chairman of the Board in 1980 and Chairman of the Finance Committee in 1987. He retired from the former in 1989 and the latter in 1995, effectively ending his career with Ford Motor Company.
Ford Purchases the Lions
In the 1950s, Ford became a Lions board member. Passing up becoming Chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Company, he bought controlling interest in the Lions’ franchise on November 22, 1963 from owners Edwin Anderson and Lyle Fife, along with 141 other shareholders, for $6 million. In a 2003 interview with the Detroit Free Press’ Drew Sharp, Ford said that the stockholder meeting for the purchase had been moved up a week to avoid interfering with Thanksgiving vacation, so it was scheduled for 1 pm. Approximately at the same time Ford became the sole owner of the Lions, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. “It turned into a sad, terrible day,” he recalled in his interview with Sharp. “About a half-hour after the meeting, a few of us were having lunch at the Statler Hilton to celebrate. And a waitress came up to me and asked if I heard about Kennedy in Dallas.”
He was so passionate about his team, he once put his foot through the screen of a television because the Lions had a bad Sunday. He was very active in the Lions organization until recent years, when his health started to limit his involvement. He desired to bring a Super Bowl Championship to Detroit, but in its place, he brought the Super Bowl here twice, most recently in 2006 at Ford Field, which raised the nation’s awareness to the plight and struggles of the city that was once the backbone of this nation. In the early 1960s, Ford was a big piece of the NFL national television package, and Ford Motor Company became one of the NFL’s first major television sponsors. He became one of Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s closest trusted advisers in the 1970s.
Even though he never brought the city of Detroit an NFL championship during his ownership – the Lions played in 10 playoffs with one win during his 50 years of ownership – Ford kept the Lions in Detroit, something not guaranteed when there were 144 shareholders, and was extremely loyal to the Lions franchise and the men he put in charge, even if the fans disagreed. Matt Millen was the Lions’ General Manager from 2001-08, and in that time, the Lions had a league-worst record of 31-84, including a winless 2004 season of 0-16. The fans wanted Millen fired, but Ford stuck with him, having weekly meetings with Millen, discussing history and football, with Ford showing his simple side, often eating bologna sandwiches on white bread. Ford also stuck with people like Russ Thomas, who was general manager for 22 years, but only had one playoff appearance to show for it, and Wayne Fontes, who is the winningest AND losingest coach in Lions history.
He also kept it real and down-to-earth, known for sitting around at Tiger Stadium for hours after a game, win or lose, with players like Charlie Sanders, Lem Barney, and Mel Farr. He continued this tradition at the Pontiac Silverdome and at Ford Field, showing that he was more of a fan than anything, wearing the same outfit to games week in and week out.
Philanthropist Committed to Detroit
One thing Ford was known for was his quiet philanthropy, donating time and money to many organizations in the Detroit area and in the state of Michigan. Ford never sought attention for this, so he kept everything with as little public fanfare as possible. After his death Sunday, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder praised Ford for his commitment to Detroit, the state and philanthropy while Ford Motor Company executives, directors and recipients of his generosity described a caring man with a genuine interest in their lives and their work. “Those of us who had the opportunity to work for Mr. Ford knew of his unyielding passion for his family, the Lions and city of Detroit,” Lions president Tom Lewand said in a statement. His commitment to the City of Detroit showed through not only by keeping the Lions in Detroit, but also when he moved the Lions back into a dying downtown area in 2002 when he constructed Ford Field next to Comerica Park.
What Others Have To Say About Ford
Many Lions fans despised him, but those same fans saw him as a clueless aristocratic owner, who really had no clue what he was doing. Lillian Schemansky, 42, of Eastpointe, has been Ford’s personal assistant at his lakefront Grosse Pointe Shores estate for the last decade, and told the Free Press she was upset Sunday when she saw reactions to Ford’s death on the Internet from disgruntled Lions fans. “It’s very upsetting to see people bashing Mr. Ford as a football owner who lost. He gave everything he had to give people a winning team. I know from talking to him — that’s all he wanted, and it wasn’t for selfish gain. He was as much of a fan as you and I are.” Millen concurred, telling the Free Press “People have the wrong thoughts on him when I read different comments or I hear things. People don’t have any idea of what Mr. Ford was or is. … He was loyal. He was just one of the best people I’ve ever met.”
“My father was a great business leader and humanitarian who dedicated his life to the company and the community. He also was a wonderful family man, a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him, yet he will continue to inspire us all,” Bill Ford Jr. said in a statement on Sunday.
Current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement that “For five decades, Mr. Ford’s passion for the Lions, Detroit, and the NFL was the foundation of one of the NFL’s historic franchise. As an NFL owner, Mr. Ford helped bring the NFL through enormous periods of change and growth, always guided by his commitment to what was best for the NFL and his beloved Lions. All of us in the NFL extend our heartfelt sympathy to Mr. Ford’s wife Martha, Bill Ford, Jr. and the entire Ford family.”
Drew Sharp of the Free Press said it best when he wrote “He did his best. He did what he thought was right. He never stopped trying or spending to build a championship team. Whether or not you thought William Clay Ford was a good owner, he was certainly a good man. That’s the only final score that matters in the light of a truly sad Sunday loss.”
Future of the Lions Secure
The Lions released in a statement Monday that “Pursuant to long-established succession plans, Mr. Ford’s controlling interest in the Lions passes to Mrs. Martha Ford. She and her four children will continue to be involved in the ownership of the franchise, as they have during Mr. Ford’s tenure.” Bill Ford Jr. will continue to be the Lions vice-chairman.
Rest in Peace William Clay Ford Sr. Here is to a long life lived, with much success and failure, but succeeding in failure by teaching us to strive onward for our goals even in the face of repeated failures.