William Clay Ford, Detroit Lions owner and chairman, passes away at age of 88

Posted Mar 9, 2014

Allen Park, Mich.— Detroit Lions Owner and Chairman William Clay Ford passed away this morning from pneumonia at his home at the age of 88. Mr. Ford served as the team’s sole owner since purchasing the Lions in November 1963. At the time of his passing, he was the second-longest tenured sole owner in the NFL.

Bill Ford(Photo: Detroit Lions Archives)

“It is with profound sadness that we mourn the loss of Mr. Ford and extend our deepest sympathies to Mrs. Ford and to the entire Ford family, said Lions President Tom Lewand. “No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions.

“Those of us who had the opportunity to work for Mr. Ford knew of his unyielding passion for his family, the Lions and the city of Detroit.

“His leadership, integrity, kindness, humility and good humor were matched only by his desire to bring a Super Bowl championship to the Lions and to our community. Each of us in the organization will continue to relentlessly pursue that goal in his honor.”

Mr. Ford owned and directed the franchise during a span of 50 years. Through five decades, his unwavering leadership provided stability to an organization, its fans and the community when most professional sports franchises cycled through numerous ownership changes and franchise moves. Mr. Ford remained steadfastly committed to ensuring the Lions were always a vital component to the Detroit community and the state of Michigan.

Known as Bill Ford to his friends and business associates, his relationship with the Lions began during his childhood when his father, Edsel Ford, and grandfather, Henry Ford, took him to the University of Detroit Stadium to see the first Lions’ team play in their maiden season in the Motor City in 1934.

He became a club director in 1956 and was asked by then-Lions’ President Edwin J. (Andy) Anderson to become the Lions’ president in 1961.

In November 1963, Mr. Ford purchased the team outright for $4.5 million and officially took over the club January 10, 1964.

Throughout Mr. Ford’s ownership, his commitment to the franchise was imprinted on virtually every aspect of the organization. Twice during his tenure, two stadiums were built for the Lions, the Pontiac Silverdome (opened in 1975) and Ford Field (opened in 2002).

In 1996, he furthered his commitment to Detroit when the team announced its move to the downtown entertainment district, culminating in the opening of Ford Field in 2002. That move continues to impact the city of Detroit and will for years to come. Additionally, when many threaten to leave a city or force its fans to invest upfront for stadium construction through personal seat licenses, Mr. Ford refused either. A vast majority of the $500 million project was financed privately, one of the highest-personal financial commitments at that time.

He has left the organization with a legacy that not only includes Ford Field, but a world-class headquarters and training facility in Allen Park. He has given the organization a structure and foundation that will ensure continued stability and competitiveness on and off the field.

Through Mr. Ford’s leadership, the Lions have maintained a special relationship and commitment in the community. In 1990, the team launched Detroit Lions Charities to offer philanthropic support to numerous non-profit agencies. In 2012, that commitment transformed into the franchise’s Living for the City community initiative focused on sustainable community health, wellness and development.

Mr. Ford, the Ford Family and Ford Field overwhelmingly factored in NFL ownership awarding Detroit right to host Super Bowl XL in February 2006. That championship game added to the city’s economic landscape in numerous ways, including a $260 million boost to Metro Detroit.

“We wouldn’t be here if it were not for the Ford family, who led the way in developing Ford Field as a catalyst for the redevelopment of downtown Detroit, including the return of the Super Bowl to Detroit,” former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue declared in 2006 during his annual state of the league press conference held just prior to Super Bowl XL.

“And the Ford family’s leadership has certainly been a big part, not just of the NFL and NFL history, but of Detroit and our nation’s history.”

Ford Field has been a key cog in shaping further revitalized growth for the city of Detroit. The stadium’s effect on the city continues to be comprehensive with its contributions as it hosts several events besides Lions’ games.

In May 2003, the Detroit News honored Mr. Ford as a Michiganian-of-the-Year, an annual tribute to select citizens who made significant contributions to the state or local community, as he had brought the Lions “back home” with the opening of Ford Field in 2002. In September 2005, he was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

Another example of Mr. Ford’s commitment was the construction of the team’s $36 million Headquarters and Training Facility in Allen Park, Mich., which opened in April 2002 and was hailed as the NFL’s premier training center. The joint venture between the Lions and Ford Land Development Corporation has continued to provide state-of-the-art facilities for both the front office and for the players’ off-season workouts, training camp, and in-season meetings and practices.

Throughout his tenure as owner, William Clay Ford has guided the Detroit Lions organization with a sense of balance, integrity and honest leadership. Never one to seek the limelight, Mr. Ford has not sought public accolades for his many contributions to football, the automotive industry and his community.

Of course, Mr. Ford’s other passion in life was the automotive industry. He was the last surviving grandson of inventor and auto pioneer Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company.

For the entire Ford Family, 2003 marked a year of great pride and celebration as Ford Motor Company commemorated its historic 100 years as an icon in American industry.

In May 2005, Mr. Ford retired from the Board of Directors of Ford Motor Company after nearly 57 years of service. He remained director emeritus on the Board of Directors until his passing. Mr. Ford most recently served as a member of the Board of Directors and was on the company’s Finance Committee, and in years past served on its Governance Committee. He had been a board member since 1948 and was chairman of the company’s Design Committee from its inception in 1957 until his retirement as vice chairman in March 1989.

During his career with the company, Mr. Ford gained special satisfaction and acclaim as the executive in charge of the design, development and subsequent introduction of the Continental Mark II, the successor to the classic Lincoln Continental that had been developed and introduced by his father Edsel in 1939. In 1973, Mr. Ford was appointed vice president-Product Design.

Mr. Ford was elected to the Board of Directors in 1948 and began his employment at Ford following graduation from Yale University. He served several executive positions before appointment as vice president and general manager of the Continental Division in 1954. In 1956, he assumed responsibility for corporate product planning and design.

When the Design Committee of Ford’s Policy and Strategy Committee was formed in 1957, Mr. Ford became the committee’s first chairman, a post he held until retirement in 1989.

In 1978, Mr. Ford was elected chairman of the Executive Committee and appointed a member of the Office of the Chief Executive. He was elected vice chairman of the Board in 1980 and chairman of the Finance Committee in 1987. He retired as chairman of the Finance Committee in 1995.

The youngest of Edsel’s four children, William Clay Ford was born March 14, 1925. Following a tour of duty with the U.S. Naval Air Corp in World War II, he enrolled at Yale, where he lettered in both tennis and soccer at the Ivy League school. As a collegian, he won league tennis titles in singles and doubles, and he earned All-American honorable mention honors in soccer. In fact, he was a nationally-ranked tennis player until two Achilles tendon surgeries relegated him to the sidelines. Mr. Ford’s athletic participation included golf, a game in which he became nearly a scratch performer, while registering a remarkable seven (7) holes-in-one over the years.

He graduated from Yale with a bachelor’s of science degree in economics and then joined Ford’s sales and advertising staff. He later served on the industrial relations staff where he was a member of the committee that negotiated the historic 1949 contract with the UAW-CIO.

Mr. Ford was also chairman emeritus of the Board of Trustees of The Henry Ford. He earned honors of an honorary life trustee of the Eisenhower Medical Center, served a national trustee for the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America and honorary chair of the United Way Community Services. He was also on the Texas Heart Institute National Advisory Council. Mr. Ford received an honorary doctor of science degree from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., in 1981.

Mr. Ford’s generosity as a benefactor was again recognized in 1997, as the outdoor courts of the University of Michigan’s new tennis center were named in his honor. Also, a new addition to Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital (which bears the name of Mr. Ford’s grandfather) opened in 1996 - The William Clay Ford Center for Athletic Medicine - which is one of the leading sports medicine treatment and research institutions in the country.

Mr. Ford is survived by his wife of 66 years, Martha Firestone Ford; daughters Martha Ford Morse (Peter), Sheila Ford Hamp (Steven), and Elizabeth Ford Kontulis (Charles); son William Clay Ford, Jr. (Lisa); 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held privately. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent in the name of William Clay Ford to the Henry Ford Museum at 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, Mich. 48124 or to Dr. Scott Dulchavsky’s Innovation Institute at Henry Ford Health System at  2799 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit Mich. 48045.