‘John to the Front’ Drayton man amazes with memory gift and zest for life

By Glynis M. Belec in Community, People
With a welcoming smile and an amazing gift for recall, John Ford has long been a favourite of customers at the Drayton grocery store where he works.  Amanda Belec Newton photo

With a welcoming smile and an amazing gift for recall, John Ford has long been a favourite of customers at the Drayton grocery store where he works. Amanda Belec Newton photo


He’s been bagging groceries and lifting spirits for over 24 years.According to the residents of Mapleton and anyone else who shops at Drayton Foodmarket, John Ford is the star attraction. This faithful employee is 53 years young, loves life and adheres daily to his goal of making people smile.
And smile they do. Local resident, Melissa Huberts-Hansma comments, “The food market would not be the same without John.”
Many other local shoppers join the chorus and echo Hubert-Hansma’s sentiments about Ford. Theresa Scholten of Moorefield considers him a remarkable person.
“He knows all our girls’ birthdays and even our grandchildren,” says Scholten. “He always asks about my mom and about my sisters [who] live out of town. He has an amazing mind and caring heart.”
John Ford, who was originally born in Guelph, wasn’t always such a popular chap. He states that he is quite shy even though his love for people trumps his nervousness. He doesn’t recall being bullied much in school but he does remember many struggles he faced with fitting in and with schoolwork.
Paula Klooster, Ford’s former neighbour, does recall how a large group of neighbourhood kids hung around together.
“Sometimes, some of the other kids weren’t so nice to John,” Klooster said, “and I remember walking home with him on more than one occasion because they were mean to him…” She was also quick to remark, “What a fine man our John turned out to be!”
“He never ever forgets a birthday,” says Moorefield resident, Henrietta Heimpel.
Heimpel is not alone in her assessment of Ford’s incredible memory. Many customers look forward to checkout time when they can chat and joke with Ford as he expertly packs their groceries. His quick wit and charming smile is the perfect ending to any shopping excursion. Ford always asks customers about relatives, friends, children’s birthdays and reminds them to have a wonderful day and to be happy.
“I don’t know how I remember so many birthdays,” Ford says. “I just have to hear someone’s birthdate once and then I know.”
Ron Fletcher, former town counselor and high school teacher, is reminded of John’s tender heart and quiet humility each time he sees him at the store.
“I think we all have much to learn from him. Grandma Fletcher will be 100 years old this year and John always takes time to ask how she is doing even though it has been 20 years since she has been in the store. And he knows her birthday!”
Although Ford was in a two year occupational program in Norwell High School in the ‘70s and struggled mightily to keep up, his remarkable recall for dates, names and faces surpasses some scholars. Locals and visitors alike are in awe about Ford’s interesting gift.
Cam Sauder, long-time Drayton resident, reflects not only upon Ford’s extraordinary memory about his family, but his integrity, too.
“I remember John telling me about some comedian [who] was performing in town one evening. He said he nearly walked out. Told me that the guy needed his mouth washed out with soap. John just couldn’t figure out why it’s so hard for some folks to be decent! A bigger heart you will not find in our community.”
New moms, Katrina Schneiders and Melissa Sauder, share how kind Ford was to them when they were pregnant and wrestling with heavy groceries.
“When I was pregnant…and went to the grocery store, he would cater to me and [he] made sure I was okay. He offered to carry things for me,” Sauder said.
Schneiders calls Ford a sweetheart. He recently sent a sympathy card to the family after her grandfather died.
Linda Hillier Farrell, family therapist and former Drayton resident, said, “When we first moved to Drayton and John saw that my husband Aaron had an artificial leg he was so concerned. He always asked Aaron if he was in pain and was amazed at Aaron’s mobility. Aaron was so touched…usually adults just stared at his leg and pretended not to see. Not John, he asked questions and extended true compassion and concern”
The second oldest of seven children, Ford was no stranger to tragedy. His older sister died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1982. Ford, devastated and fighting depression, took off out west, desperate to find closure. Much to the relief of his distraught family he called them one week later and quickly returned home. Tragedy struck two more times. In 2006 Ford lost his father to a heart attack. Then in 2009, a heart attack also claimed the life of his beloved mother.
Ford tried a few different jobs in his younger years including a stint at Grand River Pottery in Fergus and then packaging sandpaper at a 3M plant in London. It wasn’t until he landed the job at the Drayton grocery store that he found his calling. He was initially let go two weeks after being hired, but local shoppers missed his smiling face and helpful manner so he was soon called back. His boss realized he needed to allow a little more time for Ford to catch on to assigned tasks. But his people skills were perfect. And they have remained that way. In March 2011, Deb Ramage purchased Drayton Foodmarket and when she met Ford they connected immediately.
“He was scared when I took over the store,” Ramage said. But now she sees him as a relaxed and happy hard worker. “All the customers come in the store to see him [and the] kids love him.”
Ford’s interest in people continues into his private life. He may not own a computer or be able to brag about hundreds of Facebook friends, but the 110 pen pals he keeps in touch with in umpteen different countries, documented in his many scrapbooks, only add to the hundreds, maybe thousands of lives this gentle man has touched. No wonder some people have dubbed John Ford the unofficial mayor of Drayton.
“He always has this amazing welcoming smile,” says Amber Tuck, local bank manager and Drayton resident. “He always stops to ask how I am; how my husband, children and mother are. He engages in a delightful witty conversation and when I walk away no matter what type of day I have [had] he has made me genuinely smile. He truly is Drayton’s Gem.”