Jim Ford touched the lives of many people over the last 27 years, first as a member of the planning commission, then as a city councilman and mayor. To show their appreciation for his contributions and dedication to Lewes, friends, family, colleagues and elected officials gathered in Canalfront Park May 18 to celebrate his retirement.
With his wife Teresa, Ford was escorted in a convertible by Dicky Bryan from his Savannah Road home to the park he played an integral part in creating. Met by a large group dressed in Hawaiian shirts – Ford's favorite attire – with leis around their necks. This day was all about Jim Ford.
“If you want to see Jim's legacy, look around right where you are,” Greater Lewes Foundation Chair Joe Stewart told the crowd. “Ten long years it took for fundraising, planning and construction, and Jim was instrumental through every phase of that. So this is the most appropriate place to have it.”
The ceremony attracted elected officials from the state Senate, House and Sussex County Council. Gov. Jack Markell delayed a flight to attend.
“I feel like we're back in the '50s. How often do communities have appreciation day for elected officials?” Markell said. “That doesn't happen anymore. I said to Jim that I'm certainly not anticipating one of these when I'm done.”
Markell is a long-time friend of the Ford family. He attended Newark High School and played sports with Ford's older brother John. He also briefly worked for the Ford family house-painting business. Markell's younger brother, David, went to Newark with Ford.
“The idea of not being present at an event to show appreciation for Jim Ford is something that I could not accept,” he said. “You have been the beneficiaries of an absolutely exceptional public servant these last two decades. Jim is the classiest of the class acts.”
Markell said the thriving nature of Lewes is a testament to Ford's work.
“He doesn't get caught up in all the nonsense; he just wants to get stuff done,” he said. “That's why he's able to bring people together. He doesn't create enemies, and everybody likes him. To be well liked and to be effective all at the same time is pretty extraordinary. I think he's been an extraordinary leader here in Lewes and an extraordinary leader for the entire state of Delaware.”
Before stepping aside, Markell presented Ford with the Order of the First State, the highest honor a Delaware governor may bestow on an individual.
Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf offered recognition from the House, while Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, did the same from the Senate. Each also shared personal stories that further solidified Ford as an all around good guy.
“Jim personifies, unlike any elected official I know, the true definition of public servant,” Lopez said. “He's selfless and caring, capable and honest.”
Tony Pratt, who with Ford joined city council in 1992, told the crowd he fondly remembers meeting Ford the day he and his wife moved to Lewes. Next door neighbors on Jefferson Avenue, Ford and his wife eagerly met their new neighbors at the curb to help make their move go smoothly and quickly.
He later learned Ford, like himself, went to college for environmental studies, but chose the path of general contracting, a profession that prepared him for elected office, from working with annoyed clients to making someone's vision a reality. His greatest attribute, Pratt said, was his ability to listen to the wants and needs of his clients and constituents.
“He listens in the old-fashioned way of listening – he actually hears what people say,” he said. “Too often we listen and wait for our chance to talk next. Jim hears. He hears what you're saying.”
Pratt ended by saying democracy with leaders like Ford who pour their heart and soul into the job is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they envisioned the future of our country.
And after a seemingly endless line of speakers and well wishers laid praise on the now-former mayor, Ford felt it was time to return the favor. He thanked everyone, from his family to the 18 city council members and 16 Board of Public Works directors he's worked with to the nonprofit organizations that make the Lewes community special.
“All these achievements have been accomplished by us, not by me,” he said. “We have made Lewes a premier community for Delaware and beyond. We are Lewes.”
And before a canon salute wrapped up the day's festivities, Ford gave his trademark “Yee Haw” yell one final time.
“I've had a wonderful opportunity for public service because of our community and because of your support, and I thank from the bottom of my heart every one of you for giving me that opportunity.”