Robert George Ford

When I came across this photo in the former historian’s files, I laughed out loud. I had always envisioned Bob’s cabin to be similar to one of the Adirondack camps-a beautiful well-built structure filled with antiques and bear rugs. I had heard about it at Greene High School where we both taught and knew that some had been to parties there.  On the back it says: Bob Ford’s summer cabin on Van Slooten’s Hill, Summer 1961. Bob’s smiling face seems to be looking at me and saying: “The joke’s on you.”  Robert George Ford was a memorable character and an influence for good on those who knew him as a teacher and a friend.  Through his sense of humor, intelligence and modesty, he brought about change for the better, whether it be accepting others as they are or thinking about established traditions and if they were worthy of being upheld.

            Bob was born in 1917 in Greene, son of Winfred and Marie Bolt Ford. Before the second son, Fred, was born in 1923, the family moved to Alabama where Winfred was a gamekeeper for a large estate of a wealthy family. The family also had an estate in Florida, so the Fords moved with them-half the time at each place, making for an interesting childhood for the boys. When Bob was a teenager, the Fords moved back to Greene and his father ran a coal company and Bob entered High School. The Fords bought the house at 31 North Chenango Street, one of the oldest and most beautiful houses in the village.

            Frances Hallenbeck Davis was in school with him and said he was a quiet, serious student who was very talented. He was wonderful with pencils, pens and paints; he never flaunted his talent. Also, during this time, Milly Hill Auwarter remembers him working for the Fern Shoppe. He would drive by their house in the company car and go somewhere nearby where the ferns were prolific and gather them up for arrangements at the shop.  I can imagine his floral arrangements were beautiful.

            After  high school, he graduated with a Fine Arts degree from the Phoenix  School of Design in New York City. He also taught there later and made his living as an artist. His sister-in-law, Jean Ford, who lives in the family home that is filled with Bob’s art work, showed me a series of paintings he did for a company that produced Christmas cards. They’re lovely winter scenes painted from this area. Sometime in this period, he painted Cynthia Spencer Raymond in her youth. It hangs in the Cynthia Raymond Room at the Moore Memorial Library. Go and see it; it is downstairs and faces you as you step into the room.

            In the 1950s, he was encouraged to come back to Greene and teach art at the local school.  It must have been a difficult decision as he did not have a teaching certificate and would have to go back to school.  This is where the stories begin of Bob’s adventures at school.

            Barbara Bates, who taught art with Bob for years, related that an elderly male neighbor of Bob’s came over to see him one summer and said, “Bob, is there anything you want to tell me?” Bob couldn’t think of anything. The neighbor continued, “I see a young blonde woman drive in your driveway and park every morning. She goes into your house and then the two of you get in your car, drive away, are gone all day and then in the late afternoon, you return, she gets in her car and leaves. Now, is there anything you want to tell me?” Barbara said that neither one had a teaching degree and at that time, they were going to Oneonta to get their required courses and drove together.  As a bachelor, Bob loved to tell this story.

            Barbara continued that when Bob called her on the classroom phone or she called him, he always pretended he was speaking to Marilyn Monroe or Linda Darnell. Ruth Williamson Bingham remembered this and said how much fun his class was and how talented he was.  She and Tom Gorman spoke of the annual art show that showcased the students as well as area artists. Ruth remembered a Victorian house that Bob painted for one of the shows that she thought was beautiful with rich brown tones. Jean Ford carries on this tradition by featuring one of Bob’s paintings every year complemented  with a floral arrangement at the Flower and Art Show sponsored by the Greene Garden Club.

 Tom added that Bob had painted an arched bridge that he said was in the area; if anyone could find it, there would be a prize given. Tom looked and looked for it and wonders today if it is on Rte. 220 north of Smithville.  Bob would often let him and Earl Eaton do their work in the backroom where it was quiet.  Bob taught him a great deal about working with tempera paint which stood him in good stead in college. One Halloween, Bob told Tom and Earl to come trick or treating to his house and he’d give them a beer. They were so excited about this as teens and could hardly wait to get to the house. True to his word, Bob gave them a beer- root beer! One summer Tom mowed his lawn and got a painting of Loch Ness as payment. But it wasn’t done by Bob and Tom regrets that he does not have a Bob Ford painting. Bob was very proud that Tom Gorman became a talented artist in his own right after high school.

            Bob’s relations with the administration, faculty and staff were always interesting. He saw humor in most situations.  Whenever he was asked how he was, he always responded “Perfect” and as Wayne Cook told me, for a select few he added, “And damned few of us are left.” He enrolled a non-existent student who got grades and report cards for a full year. Some said it was the ghost named John who lived in his house. Others said it was Admiral Farquhar. He also had Gilbert Stuart in homeroom attendance around Washington’s birthday. One time when the electricity went off during the school day, the students were sent home but the faculty had to stay. Bob went down the hall holding a chamber pot telling everyone that the art room was fully equipped to handle emergencies while the electricity was off. Wayne Cook told me that Bob kept every daily bulletin issued and for many years, that was twice a day. He was told by Mr. Bennett, the superintendent,  that the daily bulletin should be referred to at all times. So Bob kept them all and in his back room he had seven filing cabinets full of them. He followed orders. At a faculty meeting, there was a long discussion on how one of the faculty members was going to get to a conference that was some distance away. Should he be paid for a flight or should he drive? It went on for quite some time until Mr. Collins, who had a droll wit, asked the question, “ How effective is our canal?”  I was told that Bob almost fell out of his chair, with his fit of laughter.  

Bob’s life was enhanced richly when he became friends with Slam Stewart, one of the most famous bass players ever in the world of jazz, who had moved to the Binghamton area with his wife, Claire.  Bob began to attend jazz concerts and introduced Slam Stewart to many high school students. Bob Shearer, Jeff Thomson and Jeff Lamb were three who enjoyed this music scene.   Through Slam, Bob met Benny Goodman – a huge thrill – and other jazz greats.

Bob’s house was full of antiques, another of his interests, and the house is still as it was.  Wayne Cook remembers going to visit him once and found him chopping onions on the top of his kitchen table that is from Pilgrim times. Wayne was appalled but Bob thought that was fine. Many a student has asked about the ghost John who lives upstairs in one of the bedrooms. When there was a creak or a groan in the house, it was always John up to some mischief.

Bob died in 1978 and after his death, Jean said a student came to the door in tears and asked to see the house where Bob and the ghost lived. Bob made an impact on lives in quiet ways. He never married. He saw life a little differently and it rubbed off on you. I will always remember him coming into the faculty room for his break with a hop, skip and a jump with a big smile on his face.  “How are you, Bob?” “Perfect”.