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Thursday, July 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Author gives students a motive

Seattle Times staff reporter

The tattoo crawls down a brawny bicep in red, blue and green spirals. Throughout the year, Jerry Ford's students at Black River High School in Renton watched it grow — every curve of the Japanese dragon one more sign that their teacher is like no other.

At 58, Ford's head is shaved. Sometimes he sports a black Harley Davidson T-shirt. His speech is New York blue-collar — fast as a fistfight. And he's no stranger to murder or mystery.

The Mr. Ford of language-arts class walks in two worlds. He's a New York native who graduated second to last in high school but became the critically acclaimed author — G.M. Ford — of nine detective mysteries. They include "A Blind Eye" (HarperCollins, $23.95), just released this month. And although he makes a more-than-comfortable living writing, he is also a teacher at an alternative school so rough that frustrated substitute teachers have been known to walk off the job before noon.

To his high-school students, Ford is a mentor, a friend, an inspiration, a teacher who still has a lot of kid left in him.

Tomorrow at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in SeaTac, Ford will receive the PNW Achievement Award, not only for his literary success but for his willingness to help others. Those who know Ford say he has graciously helped many fulfill their dreams — his high-school students, the would-be writers he has taught in University of Washington Extension classes, the novices he has advised at writers conferences over the years.

"He's done a tremendous amount of teaching as well as developed his own career," said Peter Kahle, chairman of the awards committee. "It's that kind of commitment we considered in making the selection."

'Mr. Ford inspired a lot of kids'

To the West Seattle resident, who has sold film rights to his books and had them translated into seven languages, the real reward is seeing his students thrive. Among them are Cody Adams and Michael Parker, both 17, and Tanesha Carter, 18.

"He's like real cool," Adams said. "He's willing to help students after school a lot. I'm really into my work now." Adams plans to become an engineer in case his rap group, Dyme Def, doesn't work out.

"He always told us to have a Plan B," he said.

Parker, another rapper inspired by Ford, plans to go to culinary-arts school. Like the others, he needed to make up credits and improve his grades. He said that through Ford's help, he has gone from the bottom of the class to the top.

"Whenever he's explaining something, he tells us the way things are. He doesn't sugarcoat things. He's so smart. He made me think of things differently," Parker said.

"He's our friend. Why would you be bad to your friend? Mr. Ford inspired a lot of kids to pick up a book and read."

What his Renton School District students may not know is how much like them Ford was at their age. His father was dead and his mother, a secretary, struggled to support him. They frequently moved through the blue-collar neighborhoods of Manhattan and into Franklin Lakes, N.J.

After his mother dropped him off at school, he'd walk out the back and be gone all day.

"If there had been such a thing as an alternative school when I was growing up, I would have been in it," he said. "I didn't fit in. I wasn't a pompom girl or an athlete."

Waiting to write

The moment Ford knew he wanted to write came in fifth grade, when his teacher gave him an A for a paper he wrote about the play "Golden Boy." But he set aside his dream of writing during his turbulent adolescence.

Despite his poor academic performance, he got into college. "It was a time when even houseplants had degrees," he said.

It was there, at Nathaniel Hawthorne College in New Hampshire, he discovered he had a knack for 18th-century literature, and he ended up with a master's degree in it from Adelphi University in New York. But he still didn't pursue his interest in writing.

"When you tell a woman you meet you're a writer, she begins to imagine life in a mobile home," he said.

Instead, he became a teacher and married. Then he moved to Colorado's Rocky Mountains, thinking "they were like the Poconos, with resorts up there."

He tried unsuccessfully to live off the land, farming and growing vegetables. It was harder than he imagined, and he later moved to an Oregon commune and had a son. The son, a University of Washington graduate, lives in Seattle.

"Personalities began to grate on each other, and suddenly, peace-loving people were discussing blunt instruments," Ford said. He and his wife moved away from the commune, and he got a job teaching at Rogue River Community College in Southern Oregon, where he remained for 17 years. He moved to Seattle in the early 1990s.

Finding his own inspiration

A few years later, he went through a divorce. "I thought writing a murder mystery would be a great way to kill everyone in my wife's family without going to prison."

"Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca?" (Walker, $21.95) was published in 1995. He has never had a rejection letter, and has received a flood of praise.

"Ford creates plots with the speed and shape of an icy downhill slalom run," said Booklist magazine.

"It's hard to decide what's better, the action or the dialogue," wrote Kirkus Reviews.

Ford considers his work strictly business — and not great literature.

"Mysteries are to literature what meatloaf is to haute cuisine. They're comfort reading. In a mystery, the world is a little neater. And the bad guy always gets caught in the end."

His first six novels star the iconoclastic Leo Waterman, who befriends the homeless, crashes a dot-com billionaire's party and takes pokes at the establishment.

Frank Corso, an honorable tough guy, is the protagonist in the others. Both characters are aspects of Ford's personality, he said.

One of his books he named "Black River," for a river that once began at Lake Washington. Now it exists only underground.

The name, he said, "is a metaphor for something that's there but doesn't appear to be."

Students are delighted that he's an author and that the book bears the name of their school.

"They want me to name murder victims for them in my books," he said.

Days shared with another writer

Despite literary success, happiness in personal relationships has been elusive. It's a painful subject he doesn't discuss.

Today, Ford lives with mystery writer Skye Kathleen Moody in a waterfront apartment overlooking Puget Sound. They got to know each other two years ago when both were teaching a UW Extension class.

They met after class at Tini Bigs Lounge and knocked back single-malt scotches until they had a $169 bar bill, Ford marveling at Moody's temerity.

With her wide smile and feathery hair, Moody, in a short time, can express a variety of emotions, while Ford simply growls. "She emotes," he said.

Last fall, at a cocktail party for writers at the Waterfront Restaurant in Seattle, one of Moody's favorites, Ford hunched over a plate of shrimp at the bar as she held court, surrounded by students and other writers.

He admiringly noted how she was the center of attention, adding before he whisked her away while the evening was early, "I hate these things."

Ford and Moody moved in together in March. He cooks Italian. They critique each other's work. They spend time on a friend's boat — proximity to the water is soothing for both of them.

Every morning, he gets up at 3 to write at a desk with two prominently displayed photos of Moody.

"He's constantly making up songs about me," she said. "He's romantic in the way the English poets are romantic."

Ford said he may someday write a romance novel.

That would stun fans and friends alike, including fellow mystery writer Mary Daheim, author of the bed-and-breakfast series mysteries.

"Romance! Excuse me, I just fell off my clothes dryer. I must talk to him," Daheim said.

"It kind of surprises me. He doesn't seem like the type," said Parker, his student. "But knowing Mr. Ford, it might turn out pretty good. ... Yeah, I'd read it."

Ford will return to Black River High School this fall, part-time. "I'm committed to seeing this last group through graduation," he said.

He'll be back to the tattoo parlor and getting his right arm done. That, too, he expects, will be a topic of conversation for some students, for whom he may be the only adult male in their lives.

"They need me. These kids sense we're kindred spirits. I love these kids." And above all else, he said, he wants "to teach them what to dream for."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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