Franklin L. Ford, distinguished historian and former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at Harvard University, died on Aug. 31, 2003, after a period of ill health following a stroke. Ford passed away at Brookhaven At Lexington, a retirement facility in Lexington, Mass. He was 82.
As FAS dean from 1962 to 1970 (and acting dean during the spring of 1973), Ford presided over a period of prosperity and growth on campus, as well as considerable social turbulence. His deanship was marked by skillful management of FAS resources, significant growth of the physical campus, and characteristic efforts to remain a steadying presence during periods of campus unrest. Ford is remembered by his colleagues as a gentle man, of quiet wit and understated wisdom.
“Franklin Ford was a man of enormous learning and great humility,” said William C. Kirby, current dean of the FAS and former student of Ford. “In an age of ever-greater specialization, he was – in teaching and research, as in title – our McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History. He was a man of scholarship and of the world. He served his country with distinction under the Office of Special Services during World War II. He gave his faculty principled leadership in an era of great turbulence. He was a wise and patient mentor to his students, of whom I had the honor to be one. I will miss him greatly.”
Ford was born in Waukegan, Ill., on Dec. 26, 1920. He received his A.B. at the University of Minnesota in 1942, followed by his M.A. (1948) and Ph.D. (1950) degrees from Harvard University. A scholar of modern German history and 17th century French history, Ford taught at Bennington College from 1949 to 1952 before launching a career at Harvard that would span almost 40 years.
A popular undergraduate lecturer at Harvard, and a valued mentor to graduate students, Ford immersed himself in both pedagogy and policy shaping at the FAS. An assistant professor in Harvard’s History Department in 1953, Ford received tenure as an associate professor in 1956 and became professor of history in 1959. He was named the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History in 1968, gaining emeritus status in 1991. In 1985, Ford received a Walter Channing Cabot Fellowship, a select honor for faculty who have achieved eminence in history, literature, or art.
As a recipient of a Harvard Sheldon Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship early in his career, Ford traveled to France and Germany to conduct his research. One of his first major articles, “The Twentieth of July in the History of the German Resistance,” drew on his work in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Office of Strategic Services from 1943 to 1946. His other important publications include “Robe and Sword: The Regrouping of the French Aristocracy After Louis XIV”; “Strasbourg in Transition, 1648-1919”; “Europe, 1780-1830,” a volume in Longman’s “General History of Europe” series; and his final book, “Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism,” which traced the history of political homicide from ancient to contemporary times. He was completing a book on the history of the Huguenots when he passed away.
Ford garnered many honors throughout his career, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and the American Philosophical Society.
Thomas Childers, a former graduate student of Ford’s and currently Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, recalled Ford’s “powerful sense of high standards. … He imbued his students with a respect for the complexity of sources, for meticulous comparative research, and, not least, for clear prose. I benefited enormously from my time at Harvard with him.”
Charles Maier, who also completed his doctoral degree under Ford and is currently Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard, recalled: “Franklin Ford was a historian who was rare in his capacity to cover two very diverse fields of history. His lectures were notable for their superb organization and dry humor. What I personally prize most about our association was that he let me have great freedom in the shaping of research topics …. He served as dean of the faculty during the hardest period in the University’s modern history and sought loyally to defend Harvard’s underlying commitment to freedom of expression and to bridge the political polarization that was dividing faculty and students.”
Ford was deeply involved in educational policy and administration at the FAS. He variously served on the Faculty Committee on Educational Policy, the Administrative Board of Harvard College, and the Committee on Athletic Sports. As Allston Burr Senior Tutor of Lowell House from 1956 to 1961, Ford was intimately involved in advising undergraduates on academic and other aspects of their Harvard careers. Ford remained an associate of Lowell House until his retirement in 1991.
Ford also chaired a faculty committee whose 1960 report on College admissions solidified the College’s commitment to a widely talented student body, hailing from a range of socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, and supported through national recruitment efforts and financial aid.
As FAS dean, Ford helped to reshape the “General Education” component of undergraduate education, a nationally influential program of course work first put in place during the 1940s. He also oversaw the major renovation of dormitories and classroom buildings in Harvard Yard, and the construction of such significant buildings as the Science Center and Mather House.
During periods of campus unrest, Ford strove to remain a voice of reason in increasingly contentious times. When Harvard students temporarily occupied University Hall in 1969, Ford was the last dean to leave the building. “I am prepared to remain in the building for as long as you like, to discuss things,” he said.
On the occasion of Ford’s announcement that he would return to teaching and research after eight years as FAS dean, Harvard University President Nathan M. Pusey said, “His keen wit, his compassionate nature, his sense of honor and justice, and his administrative wisdom in reaching difficult decisions have all notably contributed to an outstanding period of progress in Harvard’s affairs.”
Ford is survived by his wife of 59 years, Eleanor R. Ford of Lexington, Mass.; his sisters Frances Ford and Florence Dart of Catonsville, Md.; his sons Stephen Joseph Ford (Harvard Class of 1969) of Louisville, Ky., and John Franklin Ford of Tubac, Ariz.; and his granddaughter Olivia. A memorial service will be held at Harvard University in the fall.