Brenda Ford, teacher who helped kids see the world, dead at 72
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Brenda Ford held bake sales and sold mugs and T-shirts and even kicked in her own money so her students could see the world.
The longtime teacher at Chicago’s Dulles, Beethoven and Farren grade schools organized trips for her kids to Tuskegee, Ala., Washington, D.C., and Springfield. One time, they even went to London.
“These were children from some of the lowest socioeconomic areas in the city. For many, this was their first time on an airplane,” said her sister, Natalie Ford. In England, “They went to Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard.
“They went to Washington, D.C., learned about how a bill becomes law, to see where the money is printed, the White House,” her sister said. “She thought, ‘Let’s take them to Alabama, where they can see what the Tuskegee Airmen did.’ You can’t get that in a book. . . . They were 10 or 11 years old, and they were exposed to this.”
“I don’t know if you could find any [other] teachers that would have done that because they were fourth-graders,” said a friend, retired teacher Carlota Nera-Goodson.
Without her determination, the kids’ adventures would never have happened, friends and family members said.
At Dulles, the South Side school where Ms. Ford taught for about 30 years until her retirement a decade ago, “The entire school was on free lunch, very close to the CHA high-rises,” said Yvette McGehee, a former teacher there. “A lot of drugs, a lot of foolishness, gangs.”
In Ms. Ford’s classroom, “You could hear a pin drop,” her sister said. “She was strict.”
“Brenda was always in charge of the ‘Letters to Santa,’ ” McGehee said. “She would draft everyone to help her, and every child would get a gift.”
Ms. Ford, who lived in a bookcase-filled home in the South Loop, died Aug. 27 at RML Specialty Hospital in Hinsdale at 72. She’d struggled for nearly two years with complications following surgery for a pituitary tumor, including seizures and a blood clot, her sister said.
Young Brenda grew up in Gary, Ind., and Englewood. She attended St. Anselm’s grade school and Parker High School, which later became Robeson.
“She always would sit on the porch with a book,” her sister said. “She was always reading.”
She especially liked Mark Twain and Nancy Drew mysteries.
She was the first of her siblings to complete college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University and a master’s in education from Northeastern Illinois University.
“Brenda was a straight-A student,” said her brother, Kenneth. “She was a role model. She was valedictorian of her eighth-grade class and high school.
“Brenda did a lot of teaching of my younger sisters and tutoring me,” he said. “Brenda was a natural teacher.”
At Dulles, “Her filing cabinet was full of folders — I mean, every drawer was full of folders,” McGehee said. “She did not have one folder labeled, but, if you asked her for something, she could go into the file cabinet and find it. I don’t know how she did it.”
Ms. Ford advocated for 1,000 other teachers as an elected representative to the Chicago Teachers Union’s executive board and once appeared on the old WLS-TV show “A.M. Chicago” with Robert M. Healey, the union’s then-president.
Nera-Goodson said Ms. Ford chaired a Chicago Teachers Union committee that raised money for student eyeglasses, hearing aids, clothing and scholarships.
“She was one of the unsung heroes,” she said.
A fan of Russian ballet, Ms. Ford visited St. Petersburg and Moscow with her sister and “went to where Pushkin lived,” Natalie Ford said.
She also toured Austria, the Bahamas, France, Ghana, Italy, Switzerland and Turkey.
On one memorable trip, she bought tickets from a scalper so she could see the Bears win the 1986 Super Bowl in New Orleans.
A big fan of President Barack Obama, she made sure to attend both of his inaugurations.
Ms. Ford is also survived by her sisters Minnie, Jill and Lynn Franco. A memorial celebration is planned at 2 p.m. Sept. 25 at Katherine Legge Memorial Lodge in Hinsdale.