November 20th, 2006

elf hill
  • elisem

Remembering Mike

(This is the tribute that Mike's Aunt Jane gave at the memorial service, in her final draft form. An earlier draft was accidentally read, in case you notice a few differences, but this is her final edit. We're very grateful to her for her kindness to Mike and to those who loved him.)

John M. Ford was born on April 10, 1957, to Janet and William (Bill) Ford, both pharmacists, who had met at college. He was named for his grandfathers, John Ford and Milo Harley, but was always Mike or Mikey to us. The grandparents on both sides doted on their first grandchild. The family and paternal grandparents resided in Whiting, Indiana, a city best known for its oil refineries.

His mother had graduated valedictorian from her high school and excelled at Purdue, where female students made up only 20% of the enrollment. When the children were young, she enjoyed being a homemaker, sewing, making Halloween costumes and having birthday parties for Mike, his sister Martha Jane and his brother William Dale. His father daily read the Chicago Tribune from front to back and remembered what he had read. At Thanksgiving he was the head chef, stuffing the turkey and cooking a variety of potatoes, dressing, vegetables and desserts. At Christmas he was the engineer for his expanding model railroads—mostly Lionel. At the time of his death in 2002, Bill had a huge train layout on the lanai of their Florida home. The family was active in church.

Mike started reading at age three—at first logos and signs. By age four he went to the library to obtain a card, but he was denied one until he could properly sign his name. He went to kindergarten at age five, but was placed instead in first grade. His teachers always provided him with time in the library and advanced work.

Mike frequently visited his maternal grandparents in North Manchester, Indiana, where they owned a restaurant, Mike’s Café. In addition, his grandfather worked on antique clocks and his grandmother refinished furniture and collected antiques for her shop. Since their four children (including Janet and me) had left home, the Harleys rented rooms to Manchester College students. Sometimes when the boys left their books lying around, they were surprised to find Mike reading them. I think he was six at the time.

There were many visits with Indiana cousins, including my children. During one visit to our home in the country, Mike was restless, running in and out of the house. I told him to go climb a tree, and off he went. Soon he returned to the house and asked, “How do you climb a tree?” I’m sure if there had been a book on tree climbing, he would have read it immediately. I think he may have mastered kite flying when his uncle showed him how.

Mike was tall, skinny, blond and blue-eyed. He had immense curiosity and a ready smile and giggle laugh. He liked visiting at his grandparents’ lake cottage in Northern Indiana where he learned to fish on the pier. I can see his grin as he stood on the end of the pier holding up his fishing pole with a blue gill at the end of the line. One time driving home from the lake with his grandmother, they had an accident. Although she broke her leg, his grandmother was only worried about Mike.

One summer, I was at Bennington College on a fellowship and my children stayed for a time with the Fords. My son Joel told me they visited the “fish place” and the “stuffed animal place.” Living close to Chicago, there were opportunities to go to the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry and the zoo. My daughter Amy said they were not allowed in Mike’s room because they might break something.

Sadly, at age eleven, Mike was diagnosed with diabetes. He managed this well while he was home eating right and being monitored by his parents. When he was thirteen, his greatest advocate, his Grandma Harley, died from cancer at age 58. Since his Grandpa Ford had died earlier, this left him with his Grandpa Harley, who married a year later and became increasingly less involved with his life, and his Grandma Bea Ford, who had moved in an apartment on Mike’s parents’ property and needed greater care.

At sixteen, Mike began college at Indiana University with its impressive limestone buildings on the rolling hills of Southern Indiana. This must have seemed like a smorgasbord of activity and learning. He quickly found the interactive games being played in the Union, the Science Fiction Club and the Society for Creative Anachronism. Although he was intelligent, he eschewed class, instead checking out books in the library and accruing a $300 library fine. Although he was not asked to continue his education at IU, he stayed in Bloomington, working on creating games and writing articles and his first book.

Like his parents, I was always worried about Mike’s eating right. When I visited him, sometime I brought along my Aunt Marty, a retired English teacher who adored Mike. We took him to dinner and made sure he had food in his apartment. One summer, I was studying filmmaking on a grant at IU. Mike would appear at my “dorm” at odd hours, and we would go for a snack. He became interested in my work and read several books on filmmaking, learning everything he could about the camera and the craft. He could participate in any conversation on the subject, but he never touched a camera

With being married, working on my Master’s, teaching school, and raising children, I seemed to have less time to visit Mike. He grew apart from his family, moved away and we lost contact. His parents, however, continued to write him. I never believed I would not see him in the last decades of his life. While I watched The Twilight Zone on TV and read Ray Bradbury, I read only a couple of Mike’s books, which were not “obvious” enough for me. My teaching included Lord of the Flies, not Lord of the Rings. My personal taste ran to Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood. Perhaps had I shared an interest in science fiction, we would have remained close. His father, I think, read every one of his books.

Although estranged, Mike was loved by his biological family, who are having a difficult time with his death. His friends, however, may have been his chosen family. Perhaps he was lucky to have one family for the first half of his life and another family for the last half. To all here today, I would offer this advice: read books, make a will, sign an organ donor card, and contact someone you care for.

Jane (Harley) Starner
October 23, 2006