One Saturday night, post-baccalaureate Missy Preston and senior Xeno Coufal were watching Netflix in their Monmouth Boulevard apartment when they heard a knock on their door. Their friend Stephen Ford ‘15 had run into a group of visiting students and brought them to his downstairs apartment to have a party.
All he needed was a set of speakers.
“Absolutely no planning, but a great party,” Coufal said.
Friends who knew Ford remember him as a carefree spirit who lived in the moment and loved life. Even people who didn’t know him very well felt a deep connection to him.
“It was just really easy to be friends with him,” said post-baccalaureate Summer Lin.
Ford was teaching English in China when he passed away Thursday night. Details of his death have not yet been revealed.
Ford was an Asian studies major with a minor in music. His professors and friends say he had a passion for both.
Lin met Ford for the first time as a freshman when they both worked for the audiovisual department. Originally from China, Lin instantly felt a connection to Ford.
“To me, the most special thing about him is that he really appreciated not just Asian culture, but all the culture. He actually spent time learning and he got really excited when he would know something he didn’t know before,” Lin said.
His junior year, Ford studied abroad in Beijing. An Illinois native, Ford hadn’t left the country before, but was “ecstatic” when he was accepted into the program, said Forrest Linsell ‘15 who lived with Stephen all four years.
“Someone … maybe it was [Director of Campus Life] Craig Southern … someone, somewhere decided we needed to live together,” Linsell said.
Lin and Ford talked in Chinese before he studied abroad, but when he returned his senior year, his language skills had improved drastically. She assumes it’s because he spent a lot of time with local students.
“As an international student, I know it’s really hard to hang out with local people, but I’m not surprised he had a lot of local friends because he could so easily make friends,” Lin said.
Asian Studies Professor Weihong Du first met Ford in January 2013 as a student in her Women and Modern Chinese Literature course. She was his advisor.
He liked Chinese culture and translating classical Chinese poems. He studied Chinese music melody and the tonal language for a senior project.
“I think he had a lot of influence over my students in Chinese language classes,” Du said. He was a TA for her class. In her communications with Ford while living abroad, he told her that he didn’t feel like a foreigner and was able to make friends easily.
Audio Visual Department Coordinator Todd Smith met Ford at a job fair in 2012. Ford worked in the department for three years.
“He was always really positive about everything; he was kind of excited about life,” Smith said. “He was also pretty brave. … He was fearless about trying out his Chinese, not worrying about whether he was speaking perfectly, just more excited to be learning.”
Smith felt that Ford cared about his work and the people he worked with as well.
“One of the Chinese students who worked with him recently posted that she was a little discouraged by her studies and right now if he was here he would have cheered her up right away.”
This spring, the Knox Jazz Ensemble will be traveling to China. Ford and Lin, who also plays with the Ensemble, had plans to meet up.
He wanted to act as a tour guide and show everyone around China.
When Lin first saw people flooding Ford’s Facebook page with comments about how much they love and admire him, she thought it was his birthday. She checked her phone. They’d talked only three days before.
“It was just so unexpected.”
He was the kind of guy who’d go out to a bar and come home with someone without a place to sleep that night.
His friends say that happened a lot.
“He just said yes to things,” Linsell said. “He had a way of saying yes to the world and yes to the moment.”
Last summer, he lied about his age to rent a car and drove 13 hours to visit Preston at her home in Oklahoma. He took only backroads he wanted the most scenic drive possible but arrived just in time to surprise Preston before a performance.
When he wasn’t studying Chinese or music, he worked in the scene shop building sets. He was also interested in ceramics.
He was mischievous, but sincere. He would splash in puddles, and loved being covered in paint. He was dedicated to the Flunk Day mudpit.
“He had this childlike fun. He was just really happy,” Preston said.
There’s a video of Ford circulating on Facebook. It’s 2012, and he’s playing ukelele and singing into the computer’s camera.
“You are a part of me, and I am a part of that tree. I breathe it, and it breathes me,” he sings.
The title of the song: “Everything is going to be alright.”