Donald William Ford (Don)

Don was born on the 23rd of December 1929, a date that was destined to be a very significant one for a number of landmarks in his life. He was the third of what would eventually become 7 siblings. He came from humble origins. His father worked on the railway and the family never had any money to spare. Whatever Don was to have later in life, was earned through his own abilities and hard work. He was an intelligent boy, with a particular aptitude for maths and this won him a scholarship to Grammar School. This gave him the opportunity to develop academically, but didn’t immediately open doors to gilded halls. He left school at 16 and got a job as a trainee chemist in the steel works. The initial plan had been to work towards a qualification as a chemist, but his natural abilities were spotted and he was picked out for management training. He began as a shift manager, before gradually climbing the ladder to works manager for all the steelworks in Scunthorpe and eventually a director of British Steel.

It was at Scunthorpe that he was to meet a young lady who was to be the love of his life. Some controversy surrounds the exact circumstances of their meeting, but according to Joyce, she eyed up Don from her bus window on her way to work and for once, Don (who was a fine hunter) became the hunted. He was, however, very willing quarry and Don and Joyce were married on his 21st birthday, the 23rd of December 1950. They went on to have two children, Rob and Sally, 2 grandchildren, William and Rachel, and 2 great-grandchildren (so far), Freddie and Hattie. Family and work were to be the twin points of focus for Don’s life and he was utterly dedicated to both.

Being a director of British Steel in those days was a tough job. You had to be made of strong metal, so to speak. These were the days when Unions and Management wrestled British Industry to a stalemate. Dealing with the Unions was tough, but that was only half the problem. Don had to deal with Sir Ian McGregor, and found that some on his own side could be just as difficult to handle. I say, ‘on his own side’, but actually fundamentally, Don was always on the side of the workers. He was far-sighted as a manager and was a highly effective agent of much-needed change, but however tough the decisions he needed to take at those difficult times, he was recognised as someone who cared about his workers and when push came to shove, they back him as he had backed them.

Navigating your way through the turbulent Punch and Judy of British industry in the mid-20th Century was a tough business. Many people failed and few succeeded. Don succeeded by keeping a firm grip on reality. He could stand up to McGregor on one side and the unions on the other by having the facts and figures at his fingertips. And he could negotiate the hurly-burly world by being absolutely straight with everyone. Don was one of the few to earn the genuine respect of all at a difficult time in our industrial history.

He was also a person of genuine talent, something that was realised when he left British Steel for the private sector. This opened up for him a host of opportunities and he would go on to become non-executive director of a number of important businesses, NatWest Bank, Mayer International, Hugh McKay, U.E.S. and many others. He was also Chairman of Tinsley Wire.

It also led to many opportunities for international travel, including memorably, an early trip to Japan in 1963, before it had really opened up to the Western World. As one of the first Europeans to visit, he came back with many amazing stories, photographs and objects from a country that was very little known about at the time. For almost 45 years, travel would take Don and Joyce all over Europe, to the USA, Korea and back to Japan.

He was a towering figure in British Industry. As well as being a member of the British Institute, he became an honorary member of the American Iron & Steel Institute. He was President of the British Independent Steel Producers Association. He was invited to become Master Cutler on three occasions, a prestigious honour, and on each occasion passed it over to someone else. He was, however, made a freeman of the city of Sheffield and was awarded the CBE for his services to the Steel Industry, being invested by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. It was a proud day for Don and Joyce.

Don’s mantra was: “identify the problem, solve it and move on.” He applied it to everything in life, from planting seeds, to altering buildings, to planning holidays. He was always thinking ahead, plotting projects 2 or 3 in advance of the one he was working on at any one time. As you might imagine, he was deadly at chess.

He was a natural leader, but he was also a socialist at heart. He loved helping people who needed it, giving people opportunities to succeed. He went out of his way to encourage people of potential who were willing to work hard and respond to his help. He was a great believer in hard work, but also believed that hard work deserved a reward and also believed that you reap what you sow. He was a great motivational force.

Don was not one of those who expected life to be presented to him on a plate. He made the best of everything and always moved forward. Not only did that enable him to develop in his career, it also made him a very remarkable person, able to forgive, never looking back, very loyal and never bearing a sense of malice.

Some of his values look a little old-fashioned by today’s standards, but I don’t think that’s always such a bad thing. He always addressed me as Vicar, never as Stewart. In others that might seem cold or distant, but it was never so with Don. It was old-fashioned courtesy, which came across as warm and full of respect. He was a person of total integrity and a strong sense of morality which provided him with the strength and sense of direction in all he did.

Don was a very good man in a crisis, whether at work, or at home. When Sally’s first marriage broke up, he stepped in with calm and compassion, holding the family together, picking up the pieces and becoming an important father figure in Will and Rachel’s lives. In fact, he was not just a father-figure, but also a business mentor.

He had a very wide circle of friends, mostly drawn from his working life. He loved fishing and shooting, which were always part of his life. Family holidays were almost always based around fishing, particularly in Scotland, Cornwall, Wales or Yorkshire. He loved music and his love of classical and choral music came to mean more and more to him, bringing him particular solace in his last great struggle.

Underpinning it all, was a strong, devoted marriage to Joyce. She was his constant companion until, on the 23rd of December, Don’s 84th birthday and their 63rd wedding anniversary, Joyce passed away. He bore his grief with his customary determination and moved on, but as his own end approached, all his thoughts were of Joyce and his longing to be re-united with her.

Despite his own suffering at the end, he was determined to hold on himself until the 23rd December. In the face of all medical predictions, he duly did, although in actually overshot it by a few hours, dying in the morning of Christmas Eve. It was a rare moment of imprecision in Don’s life and one which, curiously, I think would genuinely have irritated him! Nonetheless, it completed the circle of his life and gave a sense of everything being appropriate for its time, even his end.

We chose the beatitudes for Don today because it spoke so much of his approach to life. In fact, we could have selected the entire sermon on the Mount, because so much of it was reflected in the way Don led his life. He was quick to forgive and move on, he was humble in heart, putting others before himself. By being extraordinarily generous, both with his time and his money, he instinctively stored up treasures in heaven, knowing that the treasures of earth are merely transitory blessings. He believed that you reap what you sow and lived by it, and in all things he treated others as he wished to be treated himself.

But these remarkable lines from the opening of the Sermon on the Mount most capture his character. Like any good sermon, these opening lines set the tone of all that is to follow and they are a kind of manifesto of Jesus’ kingdom. It is very counterintuitive to human society. It applauds those who are overlooked in this life – those who are persecuted for doing the right thing, but who do it anyway, those who are meek and do not receive the recognition that goes to others, those who are poor in spirit, and Don never forgot his roots or the struggle, yet always rose above it.

Anyone who met Don would be struck by his dignity, yet what made him so dignified was precisely the fact that he himself paid so little attention to it. When you spoke to Don, you were aware that you were the whole focus of his attention at that moment.

Don himself was a person of agnostic faith. If that sounds like a contradiction, it never appeared so with Don. He was quietly believing, though never quite sure. Yet, his life shows that he inhabited the life of faith as a fish inhabits water, unconsciously, perhaps even unseen, but the nonetheless the reality in which his life existed. The Bible does not give us a great deal of detail on how God will judge our lives. On the whole, we are encouraged to leave Judgment to God and not to take it into our own hands, but we are given one or two important insights. The first is that we are told, “by their fruits shall you know them.” The true believers show the fruit of their faith in their lives. And the fruit of Don’s faith is very clearly visible in his life.

Secondly, we are told that what counts at our own judgment is not our own merits, but by God’s mercy. Contrary to what they tell you in school, you don’t go to heaven because you are good. Instead, it is God’s gift. None of us is good enough for heaven. Heaven is perfect and even the best of us is far from perfect. Don was a good man, but he would be embarrassed if we tried to portray him as perfect. In the end, we all need God’s mercy and that’s precisely what he shows us. Christmas is a reminder that God showed the ultimate humility in coming into the muck and mess of life to take all our problems on himself. He too was born into poverty. He too lived his life by identifying problems, solving them, and moving on. He too was loyal and free of malice. And in the end, he died in order to take all our sins, and our death, upon himself, so that we can face judgment not dependent on our own goodness, but upon his mercy.

In the end, as the beatitudes remind us, we are saved not by our own merits, but by our willingness to receive mercy. That is still more demanding than it seems. It requires humility on our part. Not everyone finds humility easy. But it does mean that heaven is God’s gift to us.

And that gift changes everything and explain the counterintuitive world Jesus sets out in the beatitudes. And there is one final surprise in those statements that I think are for us today, because in Jesus’ kingdom those who mourn are the happy ones, the blessed. It is a strange idea, but it speaks of the longing for change that is required for anyone who looks to a future in heaven. For all the beauty of this world, there is a reality of turmoil and trouble that God is seeking to overturn. God is constantly seeking to bring order out of chaos, joy out of misery, and life out of death. And to be part of his kingdom, we must ourselves be willing to undergo that change, as it were, to identify the problems within ourselves, sort them and move on. Like Don, God is always looking to give an opportunity to those who want to change and to be part of his great plan.

So I offer mourning to you today as a strange blessing. It will be painful, but in the end pain is just love. Experiencing pain assures you that you are still embraced by love and that love, like faith and hope, do not die. And it is also a blessing in that the discomfort of grief draws you forward in hope, in search of a better world and the part you might be called to play within in it.

The future of ultimate hope is offered to us as God’s gift, but we can make an important contribution right now, in the fruit that we bear here and now. Despite the pain of parting, there is still a life to be lived and a future to be grasped. So curiously, in this counterintuitive kingdom of Jesus, it is a blessing to mourn and my prayer is that God will be with you at this time, helping you to process your grief, but also turning into new life and new purpose for you as you look forward with hope. Amen.