Thanks to efforts of Brighton girl, U-M legend finally gets permanent memorial
Eighty years after graduating from the University of Michigan, Willis Ward finally has a permanent place on campus. The Willis Ward Lounge at the Michigan Union was dedicated with remembrances and a ribbon-cutting on May 27, with several members of Ward’s family in attendance.
“Uncle Willis, he would have been bursting with pride,” said his nephew, Henry Ward. “He bled maize and blue. I can only say thank you very much, and he would have been very proud.”
Willis Ward was a phenomenal African-American football player and track athlete at U-M who was benched because of his race in 1934 when the Wolverines hosted Georgia Tech in a football game. The visitors from Atlanta said they’d refuse to play against any team that fielded a black player, so Michigan athletic director Fielding H. Yost agreed to bench Ward. The decision infuriated Ward’s teammates, including his best friend on the team — a tall lineman from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford.
As good as he was in football, Ward was even better in track; he even defeated the great Jesse Owens of Ohio State in two races. When he graduated from U-M in 1935, Ward decided to retire from athletics. Instead, he went on to lead an amazing life that included a stint at Ford Motor Co. as the head of its civil rights division; a term as the chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission; and more than a decade as the first African-American probate court judge in Wayne County. He passed away in 1983.
He was the most famous college student in America in the fall of 1934, but through the years, his story had become lost to history. Ward’s story was revived in 2011, when Stunt3 Multimedia released the documentary “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game” was released. The film, directed by Brian Kruger of Grosse Pointe and written by Buddy Moorehouse of Gregory, aired on PBS and WXYZ-TV, and earned an Emmy nomination.
In early 2012, the film was seen by an 8-year-old second-grader from Brighton named Genna Urbain. The film pointed out that despite what happened to him in 1934, and despite the exemplary life he led after graduating from Michigan, there was no remembrance of Ward on Michigan’s campus. Genna was incensed by that, so she took it upon herself to do something about it.
Genna lobbied the Michigan Legislature, and convinced the Michigan Senate to declare Oct. 20, 2012, as “Willis Ward Day” in the State of Michigan. She also spoke at a meeting of the U-M Board of Regents, asking them to enact a permanent memorial to Ward on campus. The Regents agreed, which set in motion the plans to name a room at the Michigan Union in his honor.
It took three years, but the story then came full circle on May 27, when the Willis Ward Lounge was dedicated. Genna Urbain (who is now an 11-year-old fifth-grader) spoke at the ceremony, and was given the honor of cutting the ribbon to open it.
“I’m glad they finally recognized him,” Genna said.
Moorehouse and Kruger also spoke at the event, and Kruger unveiled five framed photos of Willis Ward that will be donated to the Union to be displayed in the room. Among these was a photo of Ward and President Ford in the Oval Office in 1976.
Among the members of Willis Ward’s family on hand for the ceremony were his nephew Henry Ward; his great-niece Melanie Ward; and his three stepsons, Edward, Alfred and Sam Thomas. They shared stories of Willis Ward, and expressed their thanks to Genna and the filmmakers for making it all possible.
“Willis was a special guy,” said his stepson, Sam Thomas. “From the time I met Willis until the day he died, he was one of the finest people I’ve ever known. And I still feel that way.”