David Ford '58 (1935-1985)

Dave Ford ended an enviable Amherst career (president of Phi Psi, Sphinx, co-captain of the soccer team) being elected as first president of our post-graduation class.

The decency and idealism that impressed his classmates at first proved a hindrance in the workplace. He left the New York Telephone Company, after serving five years in various business capacities, in part because he could not stand how the company dealt with poor black and Puerto Rican populations.

Now aware of how much his idealism would dictate his career, Dave earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard in 1964. As he later wrote, he had a “skepticism of authoritarianism.” He strongly believed “in individuality and the humanity of man as a way of achieving cooperation and progress,” which drew him to education. With his wife, Bess, and their kids (they would eventually have five) Dave moved to Hanover, N.H., to teach junior and senior high school social studies and coach the soccer team.

He became active in the curriculum development movement, especially in exploring how anthropology could help kids understand the human condition. He consulted and gave workshops at institutions such as the Antioch Putney Graduate School.

It was a natural step in 1970 to accept a position at Education Development Center in Cambridge, a national center of creativity in curriculum development of exactly the sort Dave cared about.

Where there is challenge, there is pressure and a chance of failure. I have failed and I have won….”

But life as a researcher did not suit him, and he returned to Hanover and teaching a year later. His ideas about curriculum now embraced “psychology, sociology and topics of love, aggression, sexuality, family, role and status.”

The development of Dave’s thought might well have led him to a career beyond the classroom as a principal or other leader concerned with organizational change. But in the early 1970s and afterward Dave’s idealism and optimism were severely tested in an unexpected way. He began to suffer from mental illness, later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. As the disease worsened, he was unable to continue teaching and became estranged from his family and others. Divorce became necessary for the sake of the children, though Bess fondly remembers Dave as “well loved, a wonderful father, and a wonderful husband whose illness was inexplicable.”

Dave in 1984 with his brother, John, in Maryland, when he had improved to the point of living on his own without medication. His symptoms reappeared in 1985.
Eventually, Dave moved to Frederick, Md., to live with his brother, John, and his family. (Bess and John kindly provided Dave’s notes about himself quoted here, which were written around 1973.) His condition worsened and he was institutionalized. He eventually recovered enough to move to a halfway house and then to his own apartment.

By 1983 his recovery had progressed so that he held a part-time tutoring job and was taking courses at the local community college and doing volunteer work at the local mental health association. In moving testimony before the Maryland General Assembly in support of the organization that had assisted him, he considered himself reasonably recovered. “Where there is challenge, there is pressure and a chance of failure. I have failed and I have won and as a responsible adult I feel I can handle both.”

But the symptoms recurred in 1985, and Dave took his own life to avoid all-too-familiar depths of pain and despair. More than 30 people spoke at his funeral about his impact on their lives. The common themes in their testimonials were his kindness, gentleness, courage, smile and sense of humor.

Dave’s five children all finished college, two receiving master’s degrees. All married, and produced 11 grandchildren. In 1992 Bess married Paul Hastings, who has three sons. “The kids all knew each other, so it has worked out very well with a great extended family. When we retired in 1996 and 1997, we built a house on 210 acres in Croydon, N.H. off the grid where we could have gardens, animals and woods to work in. Now it is time to retire again and we are moving back to civilization in Grantham, N.H.”

David Walter Ford died Aug. 19, 1985.

Dave Ford
Dave with wife, Bess, in 1973, and four of their five children:
Anne (standing), Tim, Jeanette, and Dan (on floor)