- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

The Rev. James D. Ford, who as House chaplain shepherded the spiritual lives of lawmakers and their families for 21 years, died here Monday after an illness. He was 70.

Mr. Ford, the son of generations of Lutheran pastors, served as a chaplain in Vietnam and then as chief spiritual adviser at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before receiving the bipartisan appointment to the House in 1979.

He retired to his Alexandria home last year, which friends attribute to an illness, but never gave up his joy in a new challenge from riding Harley Davidson motorcycles to working on his houseboat and flying ultra-light airplanes.

This weekend, Mr. Ford had planned to preside at a wedding on his houseboat, but might have fallen ill working there Sunday, said the Rev. John Steinbruck, a close friend and former D.C. pastor.

"He was the best of the best," said Mr. Steinbruck. "He took to new levels the practice of love in Jesus, which Christians love to talk about, and did so in the most unappreciated ways."

In a Sunday e-mail message that Mr. Steinbruck received the next day, Mr. Ford had asked him to get ready to stand in for the wedding. "It was haunting," Mr. Steinbruck said. "He somehow knew. He said, 'I don't know if I will be able to make it. But I will be there in spirit.'"

He added, "Jim had a lust for adventure."

For 21 years, Mr. Ford had opened daily House sessions with prayer, welcomed lawmakers to his Capitol basement office, visited hospitals and tried to add moral quality to contentious political debate. He read St. Francis' prayer on the day the House voted to impeach President Clinton.

"I tell new members of Congress that I am the only one who will not write a book," he told The Washington Times a decade ago. "They are talking to the chaplain and four walls."

Called "monsignor" by former House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill and "rabbi" by Jewish lawmakers, Mr. Ford tried to be as truly Christian as possible in a political chamber representing a more religiously diverse public, his friends say.

He hosted bipartisan prayer breakfasts, and often would stay past midnight on days when House voting did likewise. Other days, he had a regular "powerless breakfast" with a small group in the Senate dining room.

"He was a man for others," Mr. Steinbruck said.

James David Ford was born in South Dakota, the son of a pastor. He attended Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, where he met Marcia Ruth Sodergren, who would become his wife of 47 years.

At age 33, Mr. Ford was named West Point chaplain, a civilian post, by President Johnson. He marked the U.S. bicentennial with a 51-day Atlantic crossing as captain of the sailboat Yankee Doodle, reaching West Point from Plymouth, England.

Family recall his appearance on CBS' "I've Got a Secret" game show he could perform a backward ski jump, learned in his youth.

Mr. Ford is survived by his wife; his son, Peter David Ford of Alexandria; his daughters, Marie Ford Rice of Brussels, Molly Ford Croft of Atlanta, and Sarah Ford of Arlington; and nine grandchildren.

The family holds a private memorial service today, and a public service is not yet arranged.


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