Students reflect on play where a young Gerald Ford and black teammate tackle a racist policy

During the “Victors of Character” play at The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, Montreal Walker, left, as Willis Ward in dialogue with Jesse Aukeman as Gerald Ford
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The documentary, “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” debuted in 2011. In an effort to bring the message to a wider audience, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation worked with the filmmakers and Dr. Allison Mannville Metz, theatre professor at Grand Valley State University, to develop this true story into a live on-stage performance.

Area students, including those from Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, Grand Rapids Public Schools, saw the play earlier this month at the Ford Museum.

Sixth-grader Ben Thurston said, “I liked the play because it actually breaks down the barriers.”
Sixth-grader Ben Thurston said, “I liked the play because it actually breaks down the barriers.”

The play, named “Victors of Character: A Story of Loyalty, Integrity, and the Courage to Make a Difference,” depicts the story of a young Gerald Ford, his friend and teammate Willis Ward, and the 1934 football game that both tested and shaped their characters.

The story was nearly lost to history until two filmmakers, Buddy Moorehouse and Brian Kruger, began work on a series of documentaries highlighting University of Michigan athletics.

The two began to uncover the details of a game in which star player Ward was benched because of the Jim Crow laws of the South. Ford intervened on behalf of his friend, setting the stage for confrontation. These filmmakers recognized the value in sharing the story with others.

After the play, eighth-grader Dilan Hoskins noted, “Even though we’ve come a long way, we have a long way to go.”

Dianne Carroll Burdick
Dianne Carroll Burdick has worked as a photojournalist in the West Michigan area since 1991. A graduate of Western Michigan University, she has photographed for The Grand Rapids Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Detroit Free Press, Advance Newspapers, Grand Rapids Magazine, BLUE Magazine and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting and thought provoking stories of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2016.

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