Near the conclusion of the Q&A session following the screening at the Alumni center, Moorehouse suggested that it’s time for the university to honor Ward in some way, and I agree. And after all, as Moorehouse pointed out, the only memorial on campus (if you don’t count buildings or roads in parking lots) for former athletes is this plaque dedicated to Owens…a Buckeye!
Well, there seems to be some momentum.
At last week’s monthly meeting of the U-M Regents, the idea of honoring was presented to the regents. As I understand it, an informal motion was approved to discuss the matter with the athletic department, with the hope of finding an “appropriate way” to honor Ward.
Memo to Dave Brandon: Do the right thing. This is long overdue!
Public Commentary: Willis Ward
Three people spoke about Willis Ward, an African-American who played football for UM in the early 1930s. [For background on Ward, see John U. Bacon’s Chronicle column: "When Ward, Ford Played Ball for UM"]
Buddy Moorehouse introduced himself as a 1982 UM graduate and a co-writer of the recent documentary ”Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game.” [Link to documentary’s trailer on YouTube] Moorehouse said he’d been a sports editor at the Michigan Daily, UM’s student newspaper, and thought he’d known everything about Michigan football. But until recently, he hadn’t known about Willis Ward. He described Ward’s experience on the team, including Ward’s friendship with teammate Jerry Ford and a controversial incident when UM’s head coach at the time, Fielding Yost, benched Ward in a game against Georgia Tech because of his race.
Regent Martin Taylor said he’d been a personal friend of Willis Ward, and supported finding a way to honor the former UM athlete.
Despite all that, Ward loved UM, Moorehouse said. Yet Ward hasn’t been honored because his story has been lost to time. This year would have been his 100th birthday, and it would be a good time for the university to figure out a way to recognize Ward, Moorehouse said. There is only one permanent memorial to a black athlete on UM’s campus – a plaque honoring Jesse Owens, mounted on a wall near the outdoor track. Owens set four world records at UM’s track in 1935, but there’s no memorial for Ward, who beat Owens twice.
Brian Kruger, a co-writer and co-producer of the documentary, picked up the commentary. He told regents that the documentary has been screened all over the country, including at Detroit public schools. His goal is to screen the film at every school in Michigan. Kruger also said he hoped the documentary could be viewed by UM students – it might be a tool to start discussions related to issues that had been raised earlier during public commentary, he said.
The last speaker was Genevieve Urbain, who told regents she was eight years old and a second grader from Brighton. She had watched the documentary about Ward and Ford. Urbain listed off several things that were named for others from that era, like the UM Ford School of Public Policy and Yost Ice Arena. She noted that Ward had beaten Jesse Owens – “an Ohio State drop-out” – yet Ward didn’t have anything named after him. She thought a building, street or monument should be named to honor him.
Urbain said her mother graduated from UM, and that she’d like to attend as well – she’d be in the UM freshman class of 2022. “Go Blue!” Urbain concluded, “and remember Willis Ward.”
Public Commentary: Willis Ward – Regents Respond
A DVD of the documentary was distributed to regents. Martin Tayler said Ward had been a personal friend and a fraternity brother, a golfer and a “great all-around athlete.” Ward had been proudest of beating Jesse Owens, Taylor said, and it does seem like something could be done to honor him.
Andy Richner agreed. Kathy White said she’d already watched the DVD and she encouraged others to watch it too. She also supported finding innovative ways to make the story meaningful for students at the university, as well as for schoolchildren in the state and nation.
Taylor asked whether there was consensus among board members to direct Sally Churchill – UM’s vice president and secretary, who serves as the administration’s liaison to the regents – to take action. He proposed that Churchill talk with athletic director Dave Brandon to come up with recommendations about how to appropriately honor Ward. Other regents concurred.