Acknowledging an automotive icon

Athletes, community leaders remember William Clay Ford

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 11, 2014

 William Clay Ford’s love of sports was nurtured from a young age. In this photo, he receives a baseball from Detroit Tigers player Mickey Cochrane during a Sept. 19, 1934, game against the New York Yankees. The younger Ford is pictured with his father, Edsel Ford, left, and his grandfather, Henry Ford.

William Clay Ford’s love of sports was nurtured from a young age. In this photo, he receives a baseball from Detroit Tigers player Mickey Cochrane during a Sept. 19, 1934, game against the New York Yankees. The younger Ford is pictured with his father, Edsel Ford, left, and his grandfather, Henry Ford.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

GROSSE POINTE SHORES — To the metro Detroit community in general, William Clay Ford will be remembered for his work with Ford Motor Co. — founded by his grandfather, Henry Ford — and as the longtime owner and chairman of the Detroit Lions football team.

But visitors to the Edsel and Eleanor Ford Estate in Grosse Pointe Shores — the wooded lakefront property where he and his three older siblings grew up — know him as the cute little tyke scrambling to keep up with his sister, Josephine — two years his senior — and enjoying many toys and outdoor adventures. The archives and displays at his boyhood home show Ford as a curious and playful child who would grow up to be a respected businessman and philanthropist.

The last surviving grandchild of Henry Ford, William Clay Ford, 88, died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores March 9 from pneumonia. He was just a few days shy of his 89th birthday on March 14.

“The staff of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House are deeply saddened with the passing of William Clay Ford Sr.,” Ford House President Kathleen Mullins said by email. “Moving to Gaukler Pointe as a baby, this estate was a rich and memorable part of his life; we will miss his support and enthusiasm, but most importantly, we will miss Mr. Ford, who was an important part of our lives in so many ways. It is our honor and our duty to perpetuate Mr. Ford’s many contributions and his life at Gaukler Pointe — and we will do so with great pride.”

The director emeritus of Ford Motor Co., Ford worked in the family business for 57 years, including service as a board member. An obituary from Ford Motor Company said Ford “helped guide the company into the modern era as an employee and director.” Ford was elected chair of the company’s Design Committee and served in that capacity for 32 years, during which time he oversaw the development of classic vehicles like the Continental Mark II.

Like other members of his storied automotive family, Ford was known for giving back to the community. He was the largest donor in history to Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, and the Great Hall — The William Clay Ford Hall of Innovation — was named after him. He chaired the museum’s board of trustees from 1951-1984, after which he became chairman emeritus. A former director of the Detroit Economic Club, Ford held leadership positions in a number of nonprofits, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the Eisenhower Medical Center. The sports medicine treatment and research facility at Henry Ford Hospital bears his name in honor of his support of that program, and the University of Michigan — which Ford attended briefly during his naval training — named their outdoor tennis courts after the athletic Ford.

One of the longest-running sports team owners, he became president of the Detroit Lions in 1961 and bought the team two years later.

Tributes to Ford on social media poured in from athletes and others who knew him and worked with him over the years, including one from Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who tweeted, “The city of Detroit lost a great man today.” Legendary former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders called Ford “a visionary” who would “be missed by us all” in his tweet.

“For five decades, Mr. Ford’s passion for the Lions, Detroit and the NFL was the foundation of one of the NFL’s historic franchises,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement on the Detroit Lions website. “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.”

Fellow Grosse Pointe Shores resident Ralph Wilson Jr. — owner of the Buffalo Bills — also paid tribute to his colleague in a statement on the Lions website.

“I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Bill Ford,” Wilson said. “He was a man of great integrity who loved his family and his Lions. Bill was well-respected within our league, as well as the city of Detroit, and his contributions to both were numerous. We have all lost a good friend with his passing. My deepest sympathies and condolences go out to his family and many friends.”

Detroit Lions President Tom Lewand extended condolences to Ford’s family, as well.

His statement — also issued on the Lions website — reads, in part: “No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions. … His leadership, integrity, kindness, humility and good humor were matched only by his desire to bring a Super Bowl championship to the Lions and to our community.”

Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged Ford’s many contributions to Michigan.

“We are saddened to observe the loss of Mr. Ford,” Snyder said in a statement issued March 9. “The Fords are among Michigan’s iconic, founding families, and he was an innovator in the family tradition, as well as a strong leader. Like his grandfather, he was passionate about automobiles and the auto industry, the city of Detroit, and his family. He embodied the resilience, ingenuity and leadership that brought Ford Motor Co. and Detroit great success, and sustained both through tough times. On behalf of Michiganders and our state, we honor his legacy and offer deepest condolences to his family.”

Ford is survived by his wife of 66 years, Martha Firestone Ford; children Martha Ford Morse (Peter), Sheila Ford Hamp (Steven), Elizabeth Ford Kontulis (Charles) and William Clay Ford Jr. (Lisa), as well as 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The family planned, at press time, to conduct private funeral services. In lieu of flowers, people can honor Ford’s memory by making a donation in his name to the Henry Ford Museum, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124, or to Dr. Scott Dulchavsky’s Innovation Institute at Henry Ford Health System, 2799 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, MI 48045.

At press time, Edsel and Eleanor Ford House officials were putting together a tribute to William Clay Ford and his life there that will include photos, stories and videos, some of which aren’t usually on view. A spokesperson said they hope to begin their tribute to him starting on what would have been his birthday, March 14. The Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore in Grosse Pointe Shores. For more information, visit or call (313) 884-4222.