In this story from April 1956, the popular film star shares how becoming a father reminded him of the importance of regular church attendance.
- Posted on Apr 29, 2020
Twelve years ago I married one of the most famous dancing stars in Hollywood. Today I am married to a Sunday school teacher. I haven’t changed wives, either. I am still married to the glamorous Eleanor Powell. What’s more, the change in my wife’s roles, far from dimming the drama in our lives, has led us both to a richer experience.
The truth is that since our son, Peter Newton Ford, arrived ten years ago, both Ellie and I have found God in a new way.
In the beginning, neither Ellie nor I was a stranger to God. I think we had always tried to be “good” people in His sight. Ellie was raised a staunch Presbyterian, and I taught in the Episcopal Sunday school for a while after I graduated from high. Then, although we had not yet met, the same thing happened to us that seems to happen to a lot of people.
We just got too busy. Ellie was breaking into musical comedy in New York. I was making screen tests in Hollywood and appearing on Broadway. Show business can be pretty high tension whether you’re scrambling up the ladder toward the top or balancing on one foot to stay there. Almost without my noticing the change, Sunday wasn’t church day anymore. It was a day of rest. No performance. No audience. No tension. It was old-clothes day, read-and-sleep day.
For myself, I honestly believed that skipping church wouldn’t dim my faith in God or make any difference in my relationship to Him. Occasionally, if I felt a personal need, as I did when my father passed away, I still went to church and came away strengthened, refreshed.
Dad’s passing, when I was 22, left me more deeply disturbed than I would confess. I couldn’t shake off my sorrow and loneliness. Still close to the church habit, I walked around New York one gloomy Sunday and finally entered a church at random.
The minister read from the 14th chapter of John: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions…” I have heard those words since—in Westminster Abbey, on the deck of the U.S.S. California when I was in the Marine Corps—always with the same feeling that they reached out to answer a personal need.
That morning in New York was the first time their tremendous promise penetrated my consciousness, and I left the service filled with such peace as I had not known in many weeks.
Now, would any man wittingly turn his back on such a source of help? You wouldn’t think so. But my immediate need had been met, and Sunday once more became a day of rest.
Then, after Ellie and I had been married for two years, along came Peter.
Peter made the usual changes in our lives. The night watch, diapers, never putting down an open safety pin, hiding Father’s shiny cuff links when he got to the toddling stage. But it went deeper. Our own reeducation had begun.
Mine started almost at once. I had to begin to practice what I preached about table manners, and opening and closing doors for ladies, being alert in matters of honesty, neatness, the use of the English language. Peter’s mother pointed out very firmly that we couldn’t expect young Peter to “do as we say and not as we do.”
Then Peter was enrolled in Sunday school in the Presbyterian Church of Beverly Hills. Or I should say Peter and Glenn and Ellie were enrolled. For could I say: “Run along, little man, and learn about God. Dad will sleep.”
Obviously not. Furthermore our Sunday school encouraged parents to sit in the back of the church while their young were being instructed.
We didn’t exactly study their lessons with them, but I found myself learning other things. I learned that, in neglecting church, I had been missing something, that church could act as a catalyst between God and me, help to keep Him front-and-center in my consciousness, increase my awareness of Him in daily living.
I found that forming part of a congregation meant a closer tie with my fellow man, a giving, a sharing, as well as taking. Gradually I realized that, while I’d had no complaints before, things seemed to work more smoothly; I felt better; and I could only believe this stemmed from an increased vigor in my religious life stimulated by having Peter take us to Sunday school.
I watched, too, our friends who attended church as families, and saw that church life seemed to act as a magnet, a center that drew them into harmonious unity.
Perhaps the finest thing I learned was to watch with humility the fulfillment that can come from accepting Divine direction.
When Ellie decided to marry me and give up her career for family life and motherhood, I’ll admit to moments of wondering if it weren’t a shame that all my wife’s wonderful talents should be reserved only for Peter and me and our immediate circle. Knowing how much real pleasure her dancing had given thousands, I sometimes felt that it was selfish of me to stand by and let her hide her light under a bushel of household duties.
But Ellie seemed sure that her decision was the right one and that if she were doing the Lord’s will, a way would open up which would enable her to blend her professional talents with her family duties. Without her seeking it, without tension or struggle, a new opportunity did unfold which was part and parcel of our family life and through which she has reached a new audience of millions.
The seed was small and it grew naturally. One morning I dashed into Sunday school just under the wire to find Ellie leading the singing. Obviously she was enjoying it, and so were the kids. Shortly afterward she began serving as a substitute teacher, then took a regular class of her own.
That was 7 years ago, and she has yet to miss a single Sunday. Never have I seen her inspire a Broadway audience the way she inspires those youngsters. They don’t miss any Sundays either. And soon, on week days, the neighborhood kids were flocking around demanding Bible stories. She was, in theatrical terms, a “natural.” Nor was I the only one to notice it.
Over a year ago she was asked to teach her Sunday school class on television. We had both turned down TV offers before. Again Ellie said “no,” this time for a different reason. She felt her former professional status might make suspect her appearance before the public in this new role. It took our own minister, Dr. Sam Allison, and the Reverend Clifton E. Moore of the presbytery quite a while to persuade her.
Once persuaded, she went into action. She added several children to her group to include all denominations. We hired a bus, and right after her regular class in church, off we went to the television station.
Technically, now I produce my wife’s show, Faith of Our Children, for Station KRCA, Channel 4, in Los Angeles, something I once dreamed of doing. But in those days of “restful Sundays” I never dreamed it would be such a show, nor that I could be so proud of the production. If Ellie, in the years of her retirement, became simply Glenn Ford’s wife, well, every Sunday I now become Teacher’s husband. Nominally I’m supposed to “obtain suitable guests, write and produce,” but actually I load the bus, brush hair and straighten ties, or provide an escort to and from the drinking fountain.
Whenever I try to summarize exactly how this all happened to us, I find myself turning to my star performer. At the close of each TV performance, Ellie shares with every listening parent the secret for happier living that our own son Peter taught us, when he took us to Sunday school with him.
“Stay with your children more,” she suggests. “Play with your children more. Above all, pray with your children more.”
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