By Donald Wittkowski
Theodore Charles Ford has made some high-powered and famous friends over the years.
They included former President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, Prince Charles and Princess Diana and former Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Handwritten notes and autographed photos given to Ford from all those luminaries attest to their friendship.
But Theodore Charles Ford is not from the Ford families who may first come to mind – the family headed by former President Gerald R. Ford or the Ford automobile magnates.
He is part of an Ocean City family prominent in its own right. Five generations of the Fords are featured in a new exhibit that opened Friday night as the centerpiece of the Black History Month celebration at the Ocean City Historical Museum. The free exhibit will run through February.
Although it chronicles 11 members of the Ford family spanning five generations, the exhibit focuses on Theodore Charles Ford and his brothers, Norman Kenneth Ford Sr. and Samuel Ellis Ford Jr.
They are part of a remarkable family that has served a combined 166 years in the military and decades more working for the federal government.
“It’s just so unusual to have one family compile so many years of combined service in the military and the federal government,” said Loretta Harris, a museum board member who organized the Ford exhibit.
Harris, 73, who now lives in Upper Township, still owns the Ocean City home on Haven Avenue that was built by her late father, Sylvester W. Thompson Sr., in 1959 and where she grew up.
Recalling some of her fond memories over the years, Harris spoke effusively of her longtime friendship with the Ford family. She felt it was important to publicly celebrate the contributions of the Ford family to the country, especially during Black History Month.
“We’re a small town here. But people don’t always realize that big things can come out of small towns. Many big things came from one family,” Harris said.
The Ford family members were of immense help in compiling the exhibit because they meticulously saved photos, letters and so many other treasured keepsakes of their history – giving an intimate look at their lives for many years.
“When I first saw this, I couldn’t believe it,” John Loeper, the museum’s chairman, said of the extensive collection of Ford family memorabilia
The Ford family’s ties to Ocean City date to the early 1900s. Samuel Ellis Ford Sr., who died in 1966, and his wife, Ruby Ann Wheatley, who passed away in 2000, served as the family patriarch and matriarch. They were the parents of Theodore, Samuel Jr. and Norman Ford.
Samuel Ford Jr., who died of injuries from a car accident in 1972, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Ocean City High School in 1949.
When he was in the service, he was instrumental in the Air Force’s establishment of an air base and radar site in Thule, Greenland. A black-and-white picture in the exhibit shows Samuel holding a pair of skis in snowy Greenland.
“The only way they could get around was on skis or ice shoes,” Harris explained.
Samuel was the oldest of the three brothers. His decision to join the military “defined the course for his younger brothers and later generations who followed in his military footsteps and went on to enjoy successful service careers,” the exhibit notes.
Norman Ford, who was born in 1934, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1952 and later served in the Vietnam War in helicopter maintenance. He retired from the military in 1974, according to his biography.
He then began taking law enforcement courses, paving the way for a new career as a Federal Aviation Administration police officer assigned to Washington National and Dulles airports. He climbed through the ranks to become station commander at Washington National, overseeing all police activities at the airport.
As station commander, he rushed to the Pentagon during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to help rescue survivors after hijackers crashed an airliner into the building. There, he helped six people escape the flames.
He retired from his position at Washington National in 2002, after amassing nearly 51 years in government service. He currently lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
The youngest brother, Theodore Ford, born in 1936, joined the Air Force after graduating from Ocean City High School in 1955. He, too, now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
After retiring from the military in 1977, Theodore pursued a career in law enforcement that took him to the security arm of the U.S. State Department. He became a Secret Service special agent, a position that saw him protect the lives of an array of high-profile government officials and dignitaries, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Among his assignments with the Secret Service, he was part of the security teams for former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
A handwritten note from Barbara Bush thanking Theodore Ford for his service is in a glass display case in the Historical Museum’s Ocean City High School All Star Exhibit. The playful note also pokes fun of a picture of Ford sleeping on a plane.
Theodore Ford also met and worked with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Interestingly, Ford also formed a friendship with Spiro Agnew, the disgraced former vice president who resigned from office in 1973 amid a financial scandal. An autographed portrait of Agnew given to Theodore Ford is part of the museum’s Ford family exhibit.
“There’s Spiro,” Harris said, pointing to Agnew’s picture. “Someone tried to take it out of the exhibit because he was a disgrace. But he was a part of our history, and a friend of Ted’s.”