Augsburg News

News Archives - 2000

Retiring U.S. House Chaplain Dr. James Ford tells Augsburg College graduates -- "Good People Do Good Things"

U.S. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo receives Augsburg's first honorary degree

May 24, 2000

"I've been out East for 40 years, and they can take the boy out of Minnesota, but they can't take Minnesota out of the boy," said the retiring Chaplain of the House of Representatives to Augsburg College's largest graduating class ever on Sunday.

The Rev. Dr. James Ford, who retired this year after serving the U.S. House of Representatives as its Chaplain for 21 years, addressed Augsburg's 592 graduates on the topic "Good People Do Good Things."

In addition to Ford's address, Sunday's commencement was highlighted by the awarding of the college's first-ever honorary degree, to U.S. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, an Augsburg alumnus.

Ford spiced his commencement talk with humor and poignant observations about life, describing how wisdom, a sound philosophy and skills can produce people of goodwill and people who can do good work. A graduate of a Swedish Lutheran school, Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., Ford even threw in a Swedish "Lars and Ole" joke.

Ford described his bicentennial sailing trip around the world in 1976, while he was Senior Chaplain of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. He said that among the decisions he made, the most interesting was selecting the crew -- including two West Point graduates who had never been in a sailing vessel before.

"They had never sailed, but I picked them because they were good people," Ford said. "This is the principle that I picked up from that one experience. When you pick a crew to sail an ocean, you don't pick sailors and teach them to be good people. You pick good people and teach them to be sailors.

"We had a successful trip, and we ended up as friends, through hurricanes, 35-foot seas and 70-knot winds. The most important things were not only the skills we had ä but trust, courage and loyalty with each other."

Ford praised Augsburg's commitment to a liberal-arts education, saying that while colleges can teach students the skills to do their work, the crucial part of an education is learning the wisdom to make the right choices.

"Wisdom is vision, not only looking at the skills of life, but seeing how to use these skills, where to use these skills, when to use them, in a meaningful manner for a meaningful purpose," he said. "We can use these skills to enhance the human spirit, or to degrade the human spirit. Good people do good things.

"The combination of a healthy faith, together with the skills you learn, can produce a strong and vigorous nation, and people of goodwill."

Ford cited examples of people who have accomplished his philosophy among the dozens of world leaders who have addressed Congress during his tenure as chaplain, such as Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel, Polish Solidarity leader Lech Valesa, South African leader Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Raul Wallenberg, who rescued thousands of Jews from Nazi-controlled Hungary in World War II.

"These people were good people, and good people do good things," he said. "They had the skills of their vocations, they developed their basic goodness. And that is one of the ingredients I feel (is important) about a liberal arts education, such as here at Augsburg. Here we not only learn the technical abilities and skills we need, but we try to focus on how to use those skills, for right or for wrong, for the betterment of people, the betterment of our nation and indeed, the world."

Ford, a Minnesota native, is retiring as Chaplain of the House of Representatives this year. He was elected as Chaplain, a nonpartisan post, on Jan. 15, 1979, and re-elected every two years since. He was the first Chaplain to serve full-time in the House. As Chaplain, his duties include opening each legislative day with a prayer, coordinating the use of the Prayer Room, providing counseling and pastoral services to members and staff, and serving as guest speaker to religious groups. He has also estimated that he has performed 30 wedding ceremonies for House legislators during his tenure.

After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College, Ford served as a parish pastor in Ivanhoe, Minn., from 1958 to 1961. He served as a chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., from 1961 to 1979, serving as Senior Chaplain from 1965 to 1979.

A 1959 Augsburg graduate, U.S. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo received the school's first Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris Causa) degree. Sabo's remarkable life of public service exemplifies the dedication of Augsburg College to stewardship and vocation, said Augsburg President Dr. William V. Frame in awarding the honorary doctorate to Sabo.

Sabo was presented his honor by one of his former teachers, Carl H. Chrislock, Professor Emeritus of History, and by Gordon L. Nelson, who is retiring this year as a Professor of Sociology.

"I really had a 'Chrislock major'," said Sabo. "There weren't many faculty members in history when I was there, and Carl taught practically every history course that was in the curriculum. I think I took them all. There's no one who can match Carl Chrislock in the classroom."

Sabo thanked the college for the education and experiences he received.

Sabo, who is in his 11th term representing Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District, has served in the House of Representatives since 1978. He currently serves on the Appropriations, Standards of Official Conduct and Democratic Policy committees. Prior to his election to Congress, Sabo served in the Minnesota Legislature (1961-78), including spending six years (1973-78) as Speaker of the House and four years as Minority Leader. Sabo also served for 12 years on Augsburg's Board of Regents.

In his commencement address, House Chaplain Ford said he was honored to be sharing the stage at Augsburg's commencement with Sabo, whom he described as "complete and effective."

"In Washington, we have showhorses and we have workhorses, and he is a workhorse," Ford said of Sabo.