The word “courage” comes from the French word for heart. When a person feels loved, it’s easier for them to find their courage. Don Ford could help anyone find their heart and put it to good use.
A longtime firefighter, Ford passed away Aug. 9 at the age of 61. His wife of 42 years, Ruth Ann, recalled when she met him and how he helped her find her courage.
“Don’s family took in strays,” she said. “I was a stray. I had no place to stay, but I had a job. My mother called them and they took me in. That was Oct. 1, 1973. He asked me to marry him a month later. I said yes in December. We got married Nov. 9, 1974.”
Don and Ruth Anne raised six kids of their own, and helped countless other kids come along, too.
“So many of our friends called him dad because he constantly made them feel like they were one of us,” said eldest daughter Elaine Gadbury, “and not just a kid off the street. He had a way of making everybody feel special.”
Having considered herself a stray, upon entering the Ford family, Ruth Ann taught her children to use the word in a loving sense.
“Our first stray was a woman with multiple personalities,” Elaine said. “They took care of her and made sure that everything was taken care of for her.”
His son Matt said 1989 was the first year they brought in strays.
“I had a friend in high school who moved in my sophomore year in 2007,” said youngest daughter Brittney Rubio. “She just moved out a couple of months ago.”
Don was a hard worker from the beginning. He owned three businesses over the years, retired from the Roswell Fire Department and didn’t slow down until he had to.
His mother said that when he was 15, his dad was in Vietnam, and he told her, ‘I’m the man now, Mama, and I’m getting a job.’ She told him he was too young. The next time his dad called, Don asked him, ‘Tell Mom that I’m a man and can get a job now.’ Don soon started working.
Son, Aaron Ford, known for looking just like Don, remembered his father’s generosity from a unique space.
“We worked wild land fires together,” Aaron said. “We also did private contracting and firefighting with his own firetruck. The first fire I ever went on with him was in 2002. We took a big structure truck up to the Hondo area. We made a lot of memories. I would go on long road trips with him, go fight fires with him. I got to see a different side of him that a lot of people didn’t get to see.”
Aaron watched his dad turn stranger after stranger into a friend.
“Words are hard to explain what a great man my father was,” Aaron said, “but once you met him, you got it. He would sit down and talk with you like you were his best friend. He’d talk with you like he’d known you for years. He always seemed to know who needed that. He was the first person people called when they had questions or needed help.”
He had his own way of connecting with people. Matt told a story about his father that no one else had known until recently.
“Dad went and visited another retired firefighter who was in the hospital in a coma,” Matt said. “He had to pay his friend back for something, so while he was there, he painted his friend’s toenails pink so that when he woke up from the coma, he’d ask what happened and someone could tell him, ‘Don came to see you.’”
He had a standard joke that they all seemed to secretly wait for him to do.
“At Peter Piper Pizza, he would connect a bunch of straws to reach across the table to drink from a pitcher of beer or someone else’s drink. Then he’d tell us we’re drinking too much.”
His wife was no safer than anybody else when Don had hi-jinx on his mind.
“One day I was in a hurry,” she said. “I went straight from Peter Piper Pizza to Claire’s out at the mall. I opened up my purse to pay, and here’s the hot pepper shaker, the cheese shaker and straws right on top.”
The man had a gusto for life and a love for people.
“We’re talking about a man who knew everyone,” Matt said. “He was late to everything because he couldn’t go anywhere without someone wanting to talk to him. He’d go to the store to get milk. Three hours later, we’d call him and ask, ‘Dad, where are you?’ He’d say, ‘I ran into so and so, then I had to push this lady’s car out of the street and someone needed gas, so I got them some.’”
Ruth Ann knew how to handle her husband’s gregarious nature.
“I got to where I took a portable chair to the fair,” she said. “He’d stop and talk with so many people; and I couldn’t stand for that long at a time.”
At Roswell High School, he worked with students that nobody else could reach.
“His first day at Roswell High, he was stabbed in the hand with a pencil,” Ruth Ann said. “It didn’t stop him. At first he was doing the alternative site, then he started working with the special needs kids. So many people have come up to him and said if he hadn’t helped them, they wouldn’t have graduated.”
His encouraging spirit still lives in his legacy at Sierra Volunteer Fire Department. One of his strays, Cecilia Carrasco, spoke about her experiences and how his legacy has affected her life.
“I’ve known Don for the past 10 years,” Carrasco said, “right after high school. The Ford family brought me out here. I spoke with Chief and he said, ‘If you want to try it, we’ll do some training. If you think you can handle it, we’ll go from there.’ He’s always had answers.
“He’s always a father figure to everybody. We all started out young, outside of your parents and family, you had this place and it became your second home. What things you wouldn’t go to your parents for, he would be there. He would guide us through the good times and the bad times.”
Carrasco knows his legacy is in good hands.
“Now putting all this together for him and teaching the rookies how he did it,” she said. “The more people we bring out and the more people we train is how we’re going to honor Chief. He kept telling us, ‘Whatever you go through, whoever you lose, keep getting back on the trucks.’”
Carrasco had one request of the community.
“Everyone keep the Ford family in your hearts and prayers.”
Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.