School volunteer with ‘wings under his shirt’


Volunteer parent Westley Ford chats with parents of basketball players Vivian Scretchen, left, and Betty Thomas, center. Ford, whose kids have already graduated from Northwood, continues to volunteer, taking tickets for music events, driving kids, videotaping, etc. (Susan Biddle/For The Washington Post)

Westley Kent Ford was the one-man ticket office for a winter concert at Northwood High School one recent Wednesday, arriving on campus before the musicians and the conductor, holed up in a small booth for the next 31 / 2 hours.

He was back at Northwood the next morning to reconcile his receipts, and one figure did not go unnoticed in the business office: The $35.25 extra he collected. “Every time Mr. Ford sells tickets, we always get donations,” said business administrator Suzy Duong.

Perhaps this is coincidence, but many at the Silver Spring school prefer to see it as a reflection of Ford — a humble doer and familiar face in hallways and at campus events, even though his own children have graduated. One act of generosity touches off another, the thinking goes.

“I’ve never had a parent who’s been as invested — as totally invested — as Mr. Ford,” said Henry Johnson Jr., Northwood’s principal, who ticks off a few of Ford’s contributions: field setup at football games, videotaping at basketball games, driving duty for the golf team, anything at all for the music and performing arts programs. “Every school needs a Mr. Ford because we can’t do it all,” Johnson said.

One of more than 70,000 volunteers in Montgomery County public schools, Ford is among countless such people who are integral to the ambitions and daily life of their institutions across the region. In Montgomery schools alone, 458,000 volunteer hours were logged last year.

In this swirl of giving, Ford has donated roughly 50 hours a month, nine months of the year, for nine years. “To me, it’s nice to be wanted to do something,” he said. “My reward in life is when a person looks at me and says, ‘Thank you. Job well done.’ To me, that’s more than money.”

A onetime automobile driving instructor and amateur golfer who traveled around the country for tournaments, Ford retired in 1987.

He recalls the exact day when he learned he had an unstable spine and underwent the first of 13 back surgeries, a period that included two years in a body cast. His wife, Deborah, is a longtime federal worker. They have three children, all in their 20s.

Now 66, he contributes to Northwood with a steady presence and a knack for anticipating the needs of those he helps, educators say.

During the holiday break, he will accompany the school’s basketball team to Frederick County to record Northwood’s games during a winter tournament. All through the season, he is the man behind the camera for every varsity game, home and away, from a perch in the bleachers.

Ford started his volunteerism when his children were attending St. Michael’s, a Catholic school in Silver Spring. Since 2004, he has been focused on Northwood, which had been closed for a time and reopened that year, just as his eldest son was heading to high school.

“I think the Lord puts all of us here for a reason,” Ford said, “and I guess this is my reason.”

His bond with the Gladiators has never diminished.

“He does it all. He is very special. He has to have some wings under his shirt,” said math teacher Allyn Crews, who as golf coach has relied heavily on Ford’s volunteering. “He’s one of those people you only meet once in a lifetime.”

Crews recalled that when he first arrived at Northwood in 2005 and began coaching the golf team, Ford stepped up.

“I never drove for the first two years,” he said, recollecting that Ford was always waiting outside the school in his Honda Odyssey to shuttle Crews and as many as six golfers to practices and matches.

Ford also helped students learn the sport, and at times seemed “just as much their coach as I was,” Crews said. Ford’s son Steven was on the team. Ford continued after his sons graduated in 2008 and 2009.

“He definitely has first-class airfare to heaven,” Crews said.

Ford fills his personal calendar with Northwood events of many other kinds — and often drops in to see if someone needs him. It’s been years since he’s been issued a “visitor” name tag. He has a laminated Northwood ID badge. He owns seven Northwood shirts.

Johnson, the principal, said Ford is virtually a staff member at Northwood.

In the fall, he is the go-to man for junior varsity and varsity home football games — seeing to field markers, goal-post pads, pylons in the end zone, the chain gang.

“He’s always positive, always upbeat and just willing to do whatever you need,” said football coach Dennis Harris.

When the marching band performs in Silver Spring’s Thanksgiving parade, he shuttles people to and fro, and then joins the procession, marching with his wife just behind the musicians — and picking up the occasional dropped drumstick or lost baton.

In the summer, Ford brings laundry baskets of produce to Northwood for teachers and staff members, including cantaloupes, zucchini, collard greens, string beans and cucumbers harvested from his community garden plot. Anything leftover goes to his church.

Then there is Northwood’s Academy of Musical Theater, which is especially close to his heart.

Ford’s youngest son, Philip, played trombone in the band, and Ford still does what he can, shuttling an instrument for repair, donating water and snacks to sell (his wife’s idea, he says), working ticket sales.

He is part of most out-of-town band and choir trips — missing only when health issues stop him — and has traveled with school groups to Disney World, Myrtle Beach, New York and the Bahamas. He likes to be available for errands, too. In one instance, he retrieved a student choir member’s forgotten tuxedo from a hotel room.

“He doesn’t take any free spots, he pays,” said Brian “Doc” Semos, the choir teacher.

Christopher Goodrich, an English teacher and director of theater productions, recalls bringing Ford onto the stage before last fall’s opening of “Footloose” to honor him for his box office work for the Academy of Musical Theater.

He had been manning the ticket office again that day.

He was completely surprised, and, said Goodrich, “honored and gracious. And sort of . . . not knowing why we were doing it.” Ford still recalls it as “a shocker.”

Reflects Goodrich: “He’s one of these unsung heroes.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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