At first, Yale Law School didn’t want Gerald Ford.
He posted a “fair-to-middling scholastic record” while at Michigan, according to a 1977 New York Times article. More than 75 percent of his eventual law school classmates were members of the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa.
Ford coached both football and boxing in New Haven. In 1935, Yale law students did not have full-time jobs.
“At first, Yale Law School was reluctant to admit a jock from Grand Rapids on the basis I couldn’t handle a full-time job and the Ivy League law school challenge at the same time,” Ford said in a 1998 speech. “I managed to overcome their objections and joined my place in a class that included Cyrus Vance, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver – a pretty impressive law firm in themselves!”
An oft-mentioned part of Ford’s legacy is his decision to reject offers to play pro football, choosing instead to attend law school. But while Ford might have known he wanted to be a lawyer, he couldn’t afford tuition, so in 1935, he agreed to coach football and boxing (a sport which he had never participated in) at Yale (on the East Coast, where he had never been), putting his law school dreams on hold. His salary was $2,400 a year, the equivalent of about $33,000 today, adjusted for inflation.
Determined to attend law school, Ford consistently campaigned with the admissions staff, arguing that he could handle the full schedule that coaching and class consisted of.
He attended summer school at Michigan in 1937, according to the Yale athletic department, and after nearly three years coaching in New Haven, he finally convinced Yale he was ready.
In February 1938, he took his first class at Yale Law School. By 1941, he graduated with a B average, good enough to place in the top third of his class.
And in the summer of 1940, he even found time to aid in Republican Wendell Willkie’s unsuccessful presidential run.
“I never saw much of Jerry apart from football, because he was always so damn busy,” said one of Ford’s co-coaches at Yale, Jim DeAngelis, in a 1999 interview with the New Haven Register. “He had boundless energy.”
Ford coached football for six seasons (1935-40), working as an assistant line coach, junior varsity coach and a scout. During his tenure, Yale went 25-22-2, graduated two Heisman Trophy winners (Larry Kelley and Clint Frank) and topped rival Harvard three times. In 1938, Ford scouted Michigan, which beat Yale 15-13.
Ford worked for head coach Raymond “Ducky” Pond, who earned his nickname – and legend – as a player at Yale in 1923. He returned a fumble 67 yards for Yale’s first touchdown against Harvard in seven years, clinching a 13-0 rain-soaked victory on the way to an undefeated, untied season.
Pond and his wife, Anna, took a special interest in Ford, an act the Wolverine never forgot. They formed a life-long friendship, with Ford meeting with Pond a number of times as president, according to the Hartford Courant.
As a boxing coach, Ford mentored William Proxmire, who would later join Ford on Capitol Hill. Proxmire was a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, but the two never let politics come between them.
“Bill and Jerry were always fond of each other,” Proxmire’s wife, Ellen, told The New Republic in 2005. “They were on the Hill in a time when things were much less partisan, much less vicious. To people like Bill and Jerry, sports were a metaphor for politics. You needed viable competition in your life.”
It was also during Ford’s time at Yale that he discovered a love for – and in – New York City.
He fell for a blonde model from the city named Phyllis Brown. The romance was captured in a 1940 Look Magazine spread. A skiing trip the couple took to Vermont served as the focus of a five-page feature documenting the growing trend of New Yorkers heading to the slopes for the weekend, according to the Associated Press.
“I had this very beautiful gal as a close to three-year romance, and I used to go to New York most every weekend,” Ford told the New York Daily News in a 2002 interview. “I used to drive down. … I got acquainted with a lot of the things you do in New York – the theater, etc.”
If at first Yale was reluctant to accept Ford, the school has exhibited its pride in its alum since.
A picture of Ford hangs in the hallway and a scholar-athlete award at the school now bears his name.
“Jerry was a man of great integrity,” Ford’s fellow coach, DeAngelis told the New Haven Register after Ford’s death. “He was a great all-around guy. He was kind and considerate and had a great sense of humor. . I personally think – of course, I’m prejudiced – that he made a wonderful president.”