*This article appeared in June/July ’17 issue of Owensboro Living Magazine. 

“Serve to Learn, Learn to Serve” was the motto of former U.S. Senator Wendell Hampton Ford.  One of Kentucky’s most notable politicians, Ford served as the 49th governor of Kentucky, followed by 24 years as a United States Senator.  From his gubernatorial win in 1971 until his retirement from the senate in 1999, Ford was considered the leader of the Kentucky Democratic Party.  However, he was best known for reaching across party lines to do what was best for the state and our country.

In honor of his accomplishments, the name Wendell H. Ford has marked the U.S. 60-bypass around his hometown of Owensboro since 1978, and has stretched across the state along the Western Kentucky Parkway since 2009.  There is an exhibit in his honor on the second floor of the Owensboro Museum of Science and History.  But inarguably, his greatest namesake is the Wendell H. Ford Government Education Center.

The Center was established by Senator Ford upon his retirement from the Senate in 1999. Senator Ford believed the future of our nation depended upon young people having a better understanding of our government. “Our mission is to help students gain an objective understanding of the issues that face their community, state and nation,” said Executive Director, Elizabeth Griffith, “as well as teach them to embrace the principles of civility, cooperation and the willingness to compromise.” These principles allowed Senator Ford to be successful in his career as a public servant.

In keeping with this mission, the Center established two educational programs in 2012: the EmergeNext Program and the Statesmanship Academy. During the 2016-2017 school year, freshmen from Apollo, Daviess County, Owensboro, Owensboro Catholic, and Whitesville Trinity High Schools were involved in EmergeNext, and select sophomores, juniors and seniors participated in the Statesmanship Academy.  Both programs are also available to students from Hancock, Ohio, and McLean counties.  Students from these areas have participated in the past, and are encouraged to apply for this coming year.

Over the course of three days, EmergeNext identifies, educates, and engages “young leaders in servant leadership in order to make a positive impact on their community,” explained Griffith.  Apollo sophomore Christian Leigh said his favorite activity with EmergeNext was “when we went to circuit court to observe a court in action. I really enjoyed that because I had never been inside a courtroom before.”

The five meetings of the Statesmanship Academy combine ice-breakers, leadership activities, group discussions, guest speakers, and lectures to “develop their leadership potential, as well as [encourage them to] gain an understanding of the issues that face our community, state, and nation,” said Griffith.  Meetings for both groups include breakfast and lunch and are school-excused absences.

The activities do not favor any political party or politician. Last fall, the Ford Center hosted all five mayoral candidates, and students formulated questions for the panel discussion. Members also took part in the GO VOTE! Campaign during election season in order to increase Daviess County’s voter turnout.  Every year, juniors travel to Frankfort as they study state government and meet with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General.  As the seniors conclude their 3-year tenure and their study of the federal government, they travel to Washington D.C. to tour the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, and a variety of museums and monuments.  This year, they spoke with fellow Kentuckians and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senator Rand Paul and Representative Brett Guthrie.  Members of both programs also participate in community service.

Apollo senior Rachel Thomas has participated in the program for four years. “I formed my own political opinions and learned how to use my voice to make change. Even my career goals have been influenced by Statesmanship. I someday hope to become a teacher, and then later lobby to improve the education system in our state or country.”

Students should have “an interest in public service, leadership, government, history, or public policy,” Griffith said, “but they don’t have to already be involved in those things.”  Some selected students have experience with Kentucky Youth Assembly or Kentucky United Nations Assembly, student council, or other leadership groups, but this is not required.

Current high school freshmen who are interested may apply for the 2017-2018 EmergeNext program, and sophomores may apply for the Statesmanship Academy.  Area high school guidance counselors have information about the programs, and students may apply online at fordgovcenter.com.  The deadline has been extended until Tuesday, June 20.

Apollo senior Ambria Patel agreed with Thomas that it was her favorite high-school extracurricular activity.  Patel said, “To all students considering becoming a part of the Academy, do it! I promise you there will not be a single regret!”

The Ford family honors the Senator’s legacy through their continued commitment to the mission of the Center by involvement in the board of directors, led by Diane Ford, wife of the Senator’s grandson, Clay. If you would like to donate to the cause, please contact Griffith at 270-316-8387, or you may donate online through the website.  All money stays within the program, and directly benefits the students.

Throughout Wendell’s career, he was known for his willingness to reach across the aisle and work across party lines in order to find compromise. He deeply believed in the idea of respecting both sides of an issue and working together to find a balanced solution. Undoubtedly, Wendell H. Ford’s legacy of cooperation, civil discourse and compromise lives on through the EmergeNext program and the Statesmanship Academy.