Superintendent Siblings: With service at the center, the Ford brothers' bond runs 150 miles along I-80

Superintendent Siblings: With service at the center, the Ford brothers' bond runs 150 miles along I-80

By Tyler Dahlgren

The pages of the Ford family’s Nebraska state atlas are well worn and properly weathered, its covers no stranger to the kitchen tabletop. 

Seth and James Ford are one of the rare pairs of sibling school superintendents, and the eldest Ford brother, Luke, is the activities director and assistant principal at Elkhorn North High School. As you can imagine, school is a prominent discussion topic at family gatherings and holidays. The brothers bond over the Huskers and history, too. They have plans to catch the new Napoleon movie over Thanksgiving break.

But no matter where a conversation starts, they usually end up here. Huddled around the kitchen table pointing to another random dot on a map that doesn’t lay still long enough to ever catch a drop of dust.

“It’d be a pretty rare conversation, especially at my folks’ house around the table, where Dad’s old Atlas of Nebraska doesn’t come out,” said Seth, superintendent at Centennial Public Schools and the middle Ford brother, three years older than James. “It’s a given that at some point there’ll be some obscure town or area of the state that we’re talking about geographically, and we just have to break out the atlas to find it.”

They love their state, having worked in schools all across that tattered map, but this is where they’re from. Bertrand graduates, the Fords grew up in an environment that, in hindsight, almost beckoned them to their future callings. Their father, David, worked for the local power utility and served on the school board for years. Leigh, their mom, ran an in-home daycare before becoming a school para when the boys were older. 

“What we saw growing up in our home was service,” said Seth. “Whether we were seeing the school board member going to serve the school and serve the kids, or we were seeing the daycare provider serving kids in the home, interacting with kids and making their day, that’s just what we were used to.”

Luke, who is six years older than Seth and nine older than James, embarked on his journey into education first. The passion and excitement he showed for teaching and learning piqued the interest of his younger brothers.

“We have an aunt who’s also an art teacher in a school nearby where we grew up, and so we saw first-hand the impact you could make and the excitement and joy that working in education could provide,” said James.

And then they tagged along with Luke to a Papillion La Vista South football game, and the rest is, well, history.

“It was just kind of cool being able to see the impact and the relationships he had built with the kids,” James remembers. “It was something that got me excited to get into the world of education, too.”

Like his older brother, Seth started in the classroom teaching social studies. From Day One, he was right where he belonged.

“I always knew I was going to be a history teacher,” Seth said. “I just loved it. I loved working with kids, and I was excited about the opportunity to coach and stay involved in activities through that.”

James had similar aspirations, but his path diverted a little when he landed a job to help offset some college expenses at the Mosaic in Axtell, where he worked with children who had severe and profound disabilities.

“That just clicked for me,” said James. “It opened my eyes to special education. When I started working there, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Years in the classroom passed. Enjoyable years that brought fond memories and taught invaluable lessons. The Fords learned the importance of relationships. They coached and taught and attended their students’ graduation parties. They grew professionally and had families of their own.

“I’ve loved every step of my career, but being a classroom teacher, that was fantastic,” said Seth. “It was a joy.”

Once again, they followed Luke’s lead. This time, they were journeying into school administration, where they aimed to expand their impact from the classroom to an entire school of classrooms. Today, Seth and James are superintendents of two school districts separated by 150 miles of Interstate 80.

Centennial Public Schools, located in Utica, and Cozad Community Schools are different from one another. Just like Seth, who was always on the straight and narrow, and James, who jokes he was likely responsible for more gray hairs than his big brother growing up. 

“Growing up, I was always Seth’s shadow and he was always kind enough to let me hang out with him and his friends,” James said. “On the same hand, I was always the one kind of wanting to go to the beat of my own drum. I had to blaze my own path to be a part of that group.”

Their districts, like the brothers, are alike in many ways, too.

“We’re smaller towns that are rich in tradition, rich in success, and rich in pride,” said James. “Each community wants the absolute best for their school, and they’re willing to do everything they can to make that happen.”

Seth knows his brother’s statement to be fact. Cozad was his last stop before stepping into administration.

“Every town is proud of their school,” Seth said. “We have six towns that make up Centennial, so the dynamic’s a little different, but people are proud of the school they’ve consolidated and put together here. Cozad is the same way. People are intensely proud to be a Haymaker. It’s palpable.”

With those similarities, inevitably, come shared challenges. There’s nothing more important to a school administrator than the network behind them. The Ford brothers have a built-in sounding board 150 miles down the road.

“We have a running joke that Seth is a non-paid employee of Cozad Community Schools,” laughs James. “It’s an involuntary advisory role. I just keep calling him, and he answers. He has been instrumental in being a sounding board for me and helping me through my journey of becoming a superintendent.”

The phone rings both ways. Seth is clear about that. And it definitely rings in Elkhorn, where Luke is still setting an example for his little brothers.

“He’d be better at the job than I am,” Seth admits. “If he was interested, he’d be…”

“The best one, without a doubt,” James interrupts, evoking a nod from Seth.

“He’d be the best one,” he agrees. “He’s great at everything he does. He loves the role he’s in and the dynamics it has with his children now in high school. But I say all that with one-hundred percent sincerity. He’d be a lot better at it than I am.”

“Our niece Ella was second at state cross country,” James adds proudly. “But like I said earlier, Luke has always been a role model, and his passion for education was what swayed me towards it.”

They’ve got other mentors, too. Colleagues in their networks who are always just a phone call away. Their dad and grandfathers are personal heroes, too.

“Having a network is critical,” said James. “Some of the most challenging scenarios that make their way to the superintendent’s desk are pretty complicated and many don’t have a clear cut answer or solution. You just try to navigate those challenges with as much grace and integrity as you can. Ultimately, you just want to do what’s best for kids.”

In the time between, the brothers plan on savoring the moments that remind them of why they journeyed into education in the first place. It’s really not all that hard. Those moments are many. They’re all around. 

For the Fords, it’s as easy as clearing off a table and rolling out a map.

Yep, this is where they belong.


Favorite restaurant, if you had to pick one?

James: Famous Dave’s.

Seth: The Cellar in Kearney.

TV show you could watch over and over for the rest of time.

James: The Office or Seinfeld.

Seth: Yeah, I’d probably go with Seinfeld.

How about a movie? What’s your go-to?

James: Probably something like Rambo, because that’s a series and you could watch all of them and it would count.

Seth: Good point. That’s true. It’s going to be hard to watch one movie over and over again. Maybe Shawshank Redemption? I’ll go with that.

Favorite holiday?

Seth: I’ve always loved Easter, which is maybe a unique one. But since I was a kid, that's been my favorite.

James: I’ll go with Christmas.

Do the Huskers make a bowl? They’re sitting at 5-4 at the time of this interview. Do the Big Red win another?

Seth: Absolutely. They win out. 

James: Oh, yeah. 9-4. They’re going to win a bowl, too. 9-4.

If you’re not working, where can we find you?

James: I don’t have much there other than going to Husker football games. My wife even gives me a hard time about that. She’s like, “He doesn’t golf. He doesn’t really hunt.” I don’t play basketball anymore, because I’m getting to be an old man. I walk my dog and go to Husker activities is basically what I do. And spending time with family, obviously. I have three young kids, so they keep us busy. Church and construction projects at the house, too.

Seth: Working on stuff around the house. I like to run, so I do that. I’ve run a few marathons, but it’s been years and I don’t have any on the horizon. I go to church and spend time with my family.