Pastor James Ford Dies at 70; Longtime U.S. House Chaplain
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2001; Page B06
The Rev. Dr. James D. Ford, 70, a Lutheran pastor who became the U.S. House
of Representatives' first full-time chaplain in 1979 and served in the post
until retiring last year, died Aug. 27 aboard his boat at the Gangplank
Marina in Washington.
D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden said that Pastor Ford died of a
gunshot wound and that his death was a suicide.
As chaplain, Pastor Ford's duties included opening each legislative session
with a prayer and providing counseling and pastoral services to House
members and staffers. He estimated that he performed the marriage ceremonies
of 30 House members during his career. He officiated in October at the
wedding of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and congressional
staffer Callista Bisek.
Pastor Ford was reportedly the first House chaplain to serve full-time.
Previous chaplains held other pastorates or were retired clergy members on
He faced reelection every two years, and in the mid-1990s some political
observers expected Republican House leaders, in a budget-cutting gesture, to
make the chaplaincy voluntary again. The chaplain said it never came about
because of his good relationship with members of both major parties.
Gingrich, the House speaker from 1995 to 1999, said in an interview that
Pastor Ford's greatest strength was his effective personal counseling of
members experiencing personal tragedy and alcoholism.
Pastor Ford's retirement set off a rancorous House debate over the choice of
a successor. As his retirement approached, he told a reporter that he
preferred to see congressional bickering as a positive sign.
"This is not a monastery," he said. "The noise here is part of our
democracy. I traveled in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. I went to their
parliament, and there was no noise. I went to East Germany; there was no
noise. I prefer noise. I prefer argument. That's a sign of health."
James David Ford, the son and grandson of Lutheran ministers, was born in
Sioux Falls, S.D., and grew up throughout Minnesota. His father's surname
was Anderson, but he changed it because he felt it was too common in that
region; he selected Ford because he felt the car firm was distinctly
Pastor Ford was a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and
received a doctorate in divinity from Wagner College in New York. He was
ordained in 1957 in what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
He was a parish pastor in Ivanhoe, Minn., from 1958 to 1961 and then became
an assistant chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him senior chaplain in 1965, and he
held that title until coming to Washington.
Pastor Ford, an Alexandria resident, was known for one-liners in which his
love for his ancestry was evident. He might drop in conversation his
conviction that Jesus spoke Swedish or say, "I know that God is from
Minnesota. I just don't know if he's a Republican or a Democrat."
In private, Pastor Ford was something of a daredevil. A skilled skier since
childhood, he once won a bet for backward ski jumping.
He also loved sailing and riding motorcycles, and a few years ago he
developed an interest in flying ultra-light aircraft.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Marcia Sodergren Ford of Alexandria;
five children, Julie Ruth Dunwoody of Oak Hill, Va., Peter David Ford of
Alexandria, Marie Ford Rice of Belgium, Molly Ford Croft of Atlanta and
Sarah Ford of Arlington; a sister; and nine grandchildren.