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Gerald Ford Took a Liking to UNC, But to Horace Williams Airport, Not So Much...

Art by Jeff MacNelly ’69 from the January 1975 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review.

In 1996, the Review took at look back at the World War II years on campus and in the town. As one of four college campuses chosen by the U.S. Navy for large pre-flight training schools, Carolina had a significant role on the home front — about 18,700 men trained here.

Gerald Ford figured in three of the stories we were told — one of them by Ford himself. The athletic future president, an ensign at the time, was sent to Chapel Hill to help with physical fitness training for the cadets. The Charlotte Observer reported that while at the pre-flight school, Ford helped coach Carolina’s football, boxing and swimming teams. (It should be noted that at the time the Navy had some athletic teams of its own in Chapel Hill, separate from UNC’s, and Ford may have coached the Navy teams.)

John Foster West ’47, a journalism major, had transferred to UNC from Mars Hill Junior College in the fall of 1942. As a runner for the cross-country team, West said that he often jogged in the evenings with a young ensign but that they didn’t talk much or exchange names.

That November, West said, he was sitting in the audience in Memorial Hall for a live Kate Smith radio show when his jogging buddy spotted him. The ensign had backstage access and asked West if he’d like to meet the performers. Ronald Reagan was a member of Smith’s troupe, and West said it was Gerald Ford who introduced him to Reagan along with the other stars of the show.

In an interview in 1996, Ford said he “got a little bored” after nine or 10 months training 150 cadets at a time. He was anxious to go overseas, which he did in 1943. In 1945, with the war winding down, he was stationed in Illinois as an aide to an admiral. The admiral requested Ford’s company on an inspection of the pre-flight school at Carolina.

The Navy had recently undertaken expansion of Horace Williams Airport to suit its needs, adding runways for landing and takeoff in three directions. None of them was lighted at dusk on the rainy day when the twin-engine prop plane carrying the admiral, Ford and three others landed at the wrong angle and spun off into a ditch and a stand of trees.

“We all got out,” Ford said, “and five minutes later it exploded and burned. We were all very fortunate.”

MacNelly cover art for the January 1975 Review.

MacNelly cover art for the January 1975 Review.

Ford shared a one-room cabin on Hidden Hills Drive in Chapel Hill with Bill McCachren ’39,a UNC basketball letterman who later was director of the Selective Service for North Carolina.

Other roommates included Earl Ruth ’38, later a congressman; and Jack Daley ’47.

McCachren had fond memories of Ford. In 1974, he told Roland Giduz ’48, then editor of the Review, that he typically cooked and Ford washed the dishes. He said Ford went on dates, but “he wasn’t one to carouse around and get stinking drunk.” Ford was, he recalled, “as easy to wear as an old shoe.”

McCachren said the Navy plane crash wasn’t Ford’s first in Chapel Hill. He said that he, Ford and Daley bought a Piper Cub and set about learning how to fly it.

“[Ford] crashed the plane,” McCachren said. “He flew it straight into the ground and didn’t pull up. He tore the wing off.”

Ford did not recall the incident in the 1996 interview.

David G. Frey ’64, a friend of Ford’s from Grand Rapids, sent him a copy of the Review‘s 1996 story.

Ford replied that he had read it “most carefully. …While in Chapel Hill I developed a great affection for the University,” he wrote. “I’ve never checked the records to see if George Bush and I overlapped. Next time I see him I’ll find out.”

They did. Records show that George H.W. Bush completed his pre-flight training and left Chapel Hill 16 days before the previously mentioned Memorial Hall show.

In 1974, Giduz, as editor of the Review, submitted six questions to Ford through then-U.S. Rep. L.H. Fountain ’34. Ford responded, in his own handwriting, that Professor Harry Shulman, a visiting professor at UNC from Yale in the summer of 1938, was his “main incentive” for coming to Carolina’s law school. “He was a great personal favorite,” Ford wrote. He noted he had lived in Carr Dormitory. He answered “no” to questions of whether he had kept up with pre-flight acquaintances, had engaged in extracurricular activities or sports while at UNC, or had ever discussed with Richard Nixon the fact that they were alumni of rival schools. (Nixon graduated from Duke’s law school.) Giduz’s article from the January 1975 issue of the Review is available online.


Related coverage:

  • The War Years: Some remember it as a time when the Navy took over the campus. Others recall the atmosphere of uncertainty, at home and abroad. Some remember best the dances, the big bands and watching Ted Williams hit homers. Everyone remembers Pearl Harbor. It’s been 50 years since The War ended, and the stories are still alive documenting how Chapel Hill was forever changed.
    From the September/October 1995 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review, available online.
  • Gerald Ford ’38 (law): As His Classmates Remember Him
    From the January 1975 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review, available online.

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