Published February 15th, 2023
Former President Gerald R. Ford once taught at SMC's Pre-Flight School during WWII
By Vera Kochan
Commemorative medallion presented to President Gerald R. Ford Photo provided
During World War II, the United States Navy chose Saint Mary's College as one of the government's four Pre-Flight schools that served to train pilots between 1942-1946. In that period, almost the entire campus included thousands of Navy men who were housed in temporary barracks.
Thirty years before becoming the 38th President of the United States, Lieutenant Gerald R. Ford, fresh from a tour on the U.S.S. Monterey in the South Pacific, was reassigned to SMC as an instructor in late 1944. His prior experience at another Navy Pre-Flight School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina involved teaching elementary seamanship, ordinance, gunnery, first aid, and military drills.
Besides serving as a pre-flight instructor, Ford taught cadets in the school's football division where, according to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, "aggressiveness, coordination, and alertness" would "help these future pilots become tougher physically than all enemies."
In April 1945, the Navy assigned Ford to Naval Reserve Training Command in Glenview, Ill. While that marked the end of his short career at SMC, the school, as well as the town of Moraga, chose to honor his service here 31 years later, during Ford's visit to the city of Walnut Creek in order to dedicate a replica of the Liberty Bell as a war memorial. The bell is located in present-day Liberty Bell Plaza.
Although Moraga did extend an official invitation to Ford to revisit the town during that May 1976 Contra Costa County trip, his office politely declined due to Ford's busy schedule, suggesting that he might return to California later in the fall.
This did not deter the Moraga Town Council or SMC from presenting a commemorative medallion to Ford during Walnut Creek's celebration. In an unattributed newspaper source, then mayor Merle Gilliland said, "I received a call Friday and was invited to sit on the platform" with Ford. Other local mayors and county supervisors received such an invitation.
"This commemorative medallion was a gift to President Gerald R. Ford from Councilman Merle D. Gilliland and T. Mel Anderson, President of St. Mary's College of California," states the Ford Museum. "The oval-shaped, bronze disc is adorned with a crest in relief on the front and 'Moraga Family Crest Presented to President Gerald R. Ford May 25, 1976 by Town of Moraga & St. Mary's College, Moraga, California' inscribed on back. It measures 3.5" W x 4.5" L." The medallion was made by SMC's metal arts instructor Victor Ries.
Shortly thereafter, both Gilliland and Anderson received identical letters from Ford stating, "It was a real pleasure to visit California. The Moraga Family Crest presented jointly will serve as a lasting remembrance."
The communication between Ford and SMC did not end there. In 1993, Anderson and then Regent Gerry Fitzpatrick visited Ford at his Rancho Mirage, Calif. home to personally deliver a plaque and confer the title of Honorary Alumnus on the former instructor. According to a 2007 article by John Grennan of SMC's Office of College Communications, Anderson was quoted as saying about the visit, "He remembered living in Orinda and driving over to the campus each morning. He really enjoyed his time here."
Ford later wrote to Anderson, "I have wonderful memories of my limited service at St. Mary's."
Special thanks to Moraga Historical Society President Susan Sperry and Archivist Bonnie Krames.

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