ROLAND FORD (PHOTO BY J.L. MARTELLO)
Bill Ford just knew he was the real athlete in the family. He played basketball in his early days and would even tease his younger brother, Roland, referring him to more as the “nerdy guy.”
So, as a junior at Schenley High School, Bill Ford went out for the cross country team. Roland Ford, then a sophomore, also tried out for the team.
“The first day of practice, we were running a two-and-a-quarter mile race, and halfway through the race, he passes me,” Bill Ford told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I was shocked because I was supposed to be the athlete…it happened the next day and the next day, and it finally dawned on me, he’s better than me.”
Roland M. Ford Sr., whom everyone calls the “Line Dance King,” who inspired thousands of people to be healthy and fit, died on Oct. 14 in the Pittsburgh area. He was 75. A “Celebration of Life” took place for Ford on Oct. 21 at Wesley Center AME Zion Church, in the Hill District.
Most people couldn’t keep up with Ford on the track or on the dance floor. Before he got into line dancing, Ford was a constant runner of 5K races and marathons. But around 15 years ago, he saw just how much the community embraced the dances he would create.
“Investing in people and seeing the joy that it brings to them brought him joy,” said Ford’s youngest son, Rashad Ford, in an exclusive interview with the Courier.
Debra Gloster was there at the Kingsley Center in Larimer when he first started teaching line dancing to people there. “I think Roland’s heart was really into making sure others were being fit,” she said.
Maybe Ford never knew it, but people like Gloster called Ford an inspiration when he would be running through the neighborhood, or participating in marathons. “I was so proud to see an African American person that was running through the city, and fit,” Gloster said.
As the years went on, Ford actually retired from his day job as a caseworker to focus exclusively on his passion to help others through line dancing and overall fitness. It was to the point where he was everywhere — showing Pittsburgh’s first Black Mayor, Ed Gainey, the art of line dancing, to winning awards for line dancing at conventions in Las Vegas or Baltimore. Roland Ford might be leading a dance in the heart of Homewood one afternoon, and then leading an entirely different dance in the Hill District later that evening.
For more than a decade, there was Roland Ford, leading the line dancing on the main stage at Pittsburgh’s New Year’s Eve festivities Downtown. Or what about Highland Park, and all the sessions he led there? Let’s not forget about Schenley Park, too.
“The whole city is mourning,” voiced Darlene Stewart, who worked with Ford building his programs. She has a background in health and physical education. “He was more than a line dance teacher; it was a ministry for him. He wanted to motivate people and inspire people to live a healthy lifestyle. He gave his all, I believe, to the very end.”
Stewart mentioned that Ford had been bestowed three or four awards locally in the past year or so. “He was able to smell his flowers, and for that, I’m grateful,” she said. “…The impact will be everlasting. There’s not anyone in the city who doesn’t know him or hasn’t been touched by him.”
At his viewing and celebration of life service, people came from seemingly everywhere to pay their condolences. Mayor Gainey spoke on the impact of Ford. There was Tony Fountain, who knew Ford since the seventh grade, when they both ended up at Herron Hill Junior High School. Ford came to the school from Madison Elementary.
“We started getting together on weekends, and we would go to the Carnegie Museum and just explore. We would go to the Carnegie Library and just understand all that was there,” Fountain told the Courier. He also said the two would “push each other to go beyond their comfort zone.”
As the two later attended Schenley, they decided to run for some leadership positions. Ford ran for the student government (council) president, while Fountain ran for senior class president. Not surprisingly, Ford won his bid to become president.
Quiet as its kept, Ford was more of a shy person growing up. But Ford’s love for running, according to his son, Rashad, helped him become more of a vocal leader, as he led the cross country team at Schenley.
Roland Ford would teach the importance of leadership and breaking out of one’s shyness to Rashad Ford, and it helped Rashad become the student council president at his high school for three years.
“He (Roland) showed me not to be afraid to step up and volunteer and be a leader,” Rashad Ford told the Courier.
Rashad Ford also recalled his father having “tough love for us,” and taught his children to focus on the positive in people, and being responsible and accountable.
Roland Ford, the 1966 Schenley High graduate, was married to Gail A. Sparrow for more than 50 years. He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, uncle, brother, cousin, teacher, coach, mentor and friend, said Ford’s cousin, Joyce Kareem.
Bill Ford, Roland Ford’s older brother, said that Roland Ford attended Columbia University (New York City) and pledged Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.
In recent years, Bill Ford said he would ask his brother why he had such an active schedule in his 70s. Roland Ford responded: “Billy, that’s what I do.”