Local Obituaries

Berea's Edsel Ford dies at 82

BEREA — Edsel Ford died here last Saturday.

He used to know a lot about cars — under the hood, that is. He drove a bus for a living for a long time in Dayton, Ohio. He couldn't afford the 1950s-era Ford Motor Co. car that bore his name, his wife said, but he laughed at the idea that they shared the moniker.

Edsel was a pretty rare name even in 1927, when Ford was born to a big family in La Follette, Tenn. He was the seventh son of Ulysses S. and Hattie Ford. In later years, after the car came out that bore his first name and made all those infamous headlines, nobody in the family ever got around to asking Hattie how her last blond-headed boy was named.

They kind of wish they had now, says Edsel's son, Paul.

Ulysses and Hattie's other boys got names like Benjamin and Theodore and Truman and Dennis. Edsel was just not that ordinary a name. In fact, some folks took to calling him, oddly enough, Jim. But not his wife, Frances. She always called him Edsel. Not Ed, not Eddie. Edsel.

Frances says Edsel's boyhood friends liked to call him "Model T." They must have admired the intriguing black machines that poured out of Ford plants in Detroit from 1908 to 1927 and that revolutionized the world.

Frances figures that Grace, Edsel's aunt, might have known that Henry Ford's only child was named Edsel. That it might have been Grace who suggested the name to Hattie. The names of American industrial royalty would have been known to those who paid attention even if they were just poor farm people in Tennessee.

When Edsel of La Follette was born in 1927, Edsel of Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., was 34 and had already succeeded his father as president of Ford Motor Co.

Their shared name might not have lingered much in the popular mind had it not been for commercial misfortune, which had nothing to do with Edsel the younger or, for that matter, Edsel the elder. It had to do with a badly designed, over-hyped, hideously built vehicle that was named the Edsel against the wishes of the Ford family.

It was a fact that probably bothered neither man very much. The most it did for Edsel of La Follette was make him laugh when he filled in applications and people reading them looked askance.

Edsel of La Follette met Frances on a school bus when she was in eighth grade and he was in ninth grade. She remembers him as shy that day. She also remembers that he was drafted out of high school in 1945 to go to China and that when he returned from the war, he was no longer shy. They married in 1948.

She remembers that she was thrilled to trade her last name, Hovater, for the lovely and simple last name of Ford, like "the ones in Michigan but without the money."

He was, all his life, a kind man with a quick retort and an easy smile, a man who never shied from work or from helping a neighbor who might, say, need a roof or a transmission repaired.

The ill-fated car named the Edsel first rolled off the assembly line in 1958; Edsel Ford, son of Henry, had died of cancer in 1943 at age 49. Edsel, son of Ulysses, was not about to buy a car that expensive no matter what you called it and no matter the tribute intended.

"My parents were very practical people," Paul Ford says. "They would have bought based on condition and price. The name would never have gotten in the way."

Frances says Edsel never said a bad thing about the car; instead, he liked to say "it was ahead of its time."

Perhaps. It also was an unqualified failure for Ford Motor Co. By November 1959, when the decision was made to cease the limited production of the car, it had lost, in 1959 dollars, $250 million.

In the ensuing 50 years, an unkind popular culture hasn't let the failed association go. Webster's Dictionary now includes the definition of Edsel as "a product, project, etc. that fails to gain public acceptance despite high expectations, costly promotional efforts, etc."

None of that seemed to have had an adverse impact on Edsel Ford, who seemed only to have been impressed when recently told that the current value of one in good condition was better than $100,000.

Of the 110,000 Edsels ever produced, only 5,000 remain. Each is cherished.

None more than Edsel Ford of Berea. He was 82.