A first-generation college graduate, Ford was called to work in student affairs “by accident” – while earning a master’s degree and working with “juvenile delinquents” as she described in a recorded UIS event. She would go on to foster the growth of countless students from marginalized backgrounds, helping them find their own callings and providing them with support to make it to the finish line. Ford said she loved her job because of the ability to meet and talk with students and address their concerns, “but most of all to watch them grow and graduate, it gets no better than that.” Ford was stylish, stern and generous with her love and compassion. She was a sports fan – especially enthusiastic about the Pittsburgh Steelers – who was dedicated to her sorority, philanthropy and investment in youth. She was also a proud veteran, having served in the U.S. Army. In 2017, she received a Seven Seals Award from the Illinois Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve for her support of veterans and active military.
Ford’s best known phrase was “whatever it takes” – a missive to students to graduate and succeed no matter the obstacles. In 2009, she started the ongoing Necessary Steps Mentoring program at UIS. The program, including a class, is oriented toward first-generation college students and features a book she authored. In addition to fostering student success, she was also a proponent for education about Black history and culture.
One testament to the power of her mentorship is evident in her protégé, Justin Rose, a former student who is now in the position she first held at UIS as director of the diversity center. “I’m from the west side of Chicago, and when we both met each other, I thought she was from Chicago. Our energy, our approach to life, the way we talk – everything made me feel like we knew each other already,” said Rose. They immediately hit it off, though in reality Ford was born in Pennsylvania. Rose credits Ford with having the foresight to merge the college’s women’s center and diversity center, a step that has meant more cohesion and better support for students, he said.
Rose said Ford’s role in the lives of students often transcended that of adviser. Many came to call her “Mama Ford.” She was also an ordained minister – faith and family were foundational pillars of her life. Surviving her is husband Atlas Ford Sr., as well as nine children and 14 grandchildren. Ford welcomed others to be their authentic selves because she was authentic, said Rose. While diversity and inclusion have become corporate and academic buzzwords, Ford put them into practice.
As a UIS student, Brittany Hilderbrand was counseled by Ford before enrolling in the Public Affairs Reporting program, which she graduated from in 2016 after interning with Illinois Times. She’s now a public information officer in Missouri. Hilderbrand also recently started her own writing service, and said Ford’s influence is partially to credit for her successes. “She was truly a person who motivates the students. I know I was one of those people, and she was also a nurturing soul,” said Hilderbrand. “No matter what the circumstances were, she had an open ear and an open mind and she continued to provide guidance and push you forward.”
In 2019, The Outlet, a Springfield mentoring program for fatherless youth, gave Ford its Community Leadership Award. Outlet Founder and CEO Michael Phelon was joined by Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton in presenting the award to Ford last year. Ford was one of The Outlet’s founding board members.
Ford’s legacy will live on, not only in the countless students whose lives she touched, but also in a UIS fund in her name and a planned section of the UIS library in her honor. The Outlet has also set up a scholarship fund in her name. “Dr. Ford’s legacy will forever live on through the many lives that we work with at The Outlet. I am a better person, father and husband because of her friendship and mentorship. She has always pushed those around her to dream big and to never take no for an answer,” wrote Phelon.