'Victors of Character'


– Photos courtesy of the Detroit Athletic Club

Play highlights riveting story of a pair of U-M teammates

Earlier this year, officials from the Grand Rapids-based Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation reached out to Detroit Athletic Club member Fritz Damm with a special educational idea.

The Foundation was interested in bringing its play – “Victors of Character” – to Detroit students. The play tells the true story of a young Gerald Ford, his friend and teammate Willis Ward, and the 1934 football game that both tested and shaped their character. It is the story of a Michigan and Georgia Tech game in which star U-M player Willis Ward was benched because of Jim Crow laws of the South. The Yellow Jackets agreed to play the Wolverines in Ann Arbor that season on the condition that U-M would not suit up Ward, the team’s only African-American player.

The play had been rolled out to the Grand Rapids school district and because of its success, Foundation officials hoped to share it with Detroit students. What ensued was a series of events, with each becoming a triumph on its own.

First, Damm reached out to the DAC/DPS subcommittee to start the process of engaging Detroit Public schools. Committee members Ann O’Neal and Anthony Adams worked closely with Damm to make the program happen.

“The first event would be to take students from each of our ‘adopted’ schools by motor coach from Detroit to the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids,” said O’Neal and Adams. “The Ford Foundation offered to pay for transportation, which helped facilitate the trip. Pershing High School chose thirty 11th- and 12th-graders and Nolan sent twenty-five 7th- and 8th-graders. Upon arrival at their respective schools, students were treated to a breakfast bag. After a 2-1/2-hour bus ride, the students were greeted by Clare Shubert, director of Engagement and Programming for the Ford Presidential Foundation, and seven members of her staff. The students were divided into small groups and given a lively tour and riveting account of President Ford’s life and the period in which he lived. The staff then engaged the students in an interactive game that allowed the students to roam the museum looking for clues for their team. Although this was a highlight, throughout their visit they were engaged, excited, and a joy to be around.  A pizza party was held at the museum and snacks on the return trip were all provided by a generous DAC subcommittee member.

“When interviewing students a week later, they had nothing but positive feedback, loved everything about it even the long bus ride, there and back. They just wished they could have stayed longer.” 

On October 21, the “Victors of Character” production was brought to Detroit. It first went to Spain Middle School for two performances for DPS students, then to the DAC for an evening performance for DAC members and friends.

While at Spain Middle School, playwright Allison Metz and Shubert worked their magic in engaging students ranging from grades 6-12. After watching the play, students were thoughtful and full of questions. One student said he learned, “You can’t give up your power, because if you give up power, you lose hope.”

The evening at the DAC was “filled with excitement and a special buzz,” according to Damm, a longtime Detroit attorney. Jack Harbaugh, father of U-M football coach Jim Harbaugh and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, provided both the introduction to the play and some entertainment of his own, delighting upward of 180 attendees.

“When the play finished, the actors received a standing ovation,” O’Neal and Adams said. “Thank you to the DAC staff that made sure everything went without a hitch, even a play.”

The “Victors of Character” day at DPS and the DAC was sponsored by the following companies and individuals: Huron Capital, Clark Hill, Dykema Gossett, James Group International, UHY, LLP., Chemical Bank, John Chase, Anthony Adams, Joseph Carney, Fritz Damm, Stuart Dow, John Dunwoody, Mary Kramer, Matthew Mclogan, Thomas Mertz, Jules Olsman, Mike Bernard, Robert Finkel, and Don Lindow. As a result of their generosity, the Community Outreach Committee has been able to contribute nearly $10,000 to the DAC Foundation’s account for the benefit of the DPS/DAC partnership, according to Damm.

“We, the Community Outreach Committee of the DAC, look forward to an ongoing relationship with the Gerald R. Ford Museum/Foundation,” said O’Neal and Adams. “In fact, there is discussion to bring the play back to Detroit for more students to experience. Also, students from Pershing High and Nolan Elementary had such an outstanding experience on their Grand Rapids’ field trip that they are ready to go again and bring more students with them. Further, other DPS schools may be able to experience such a trip with proper planning and the aid of the Ford Foundation’s travel budget and our members’ sponsorship. The field trip to the Museum and the play’s production were well received by all involved to justify continued discussion. In all respects, the described triumphant events taken together not only were good for the participants, but also will allow other DAC members to be involved as our partnership with the Detroit Public Schools and the Ford Foundation evolves from these wonderful experiences for the students and our members.”