On a gray, windy, misty May morning, the smile on Dennis Ford’s face shines through the dismal weather as he greets passengers disembarking from the Island Home. If you take the Steamship Authority ferries into or out of Woods Hole between 7 am and 3 pm, Wednesday through Monday, you’ve probably become familiar with his booming voice and gregarious manner as he points passengers in the right direction. “Palmer Ave.!” he says in his powerful voice, “bus 16!”
Dennis Ford is, by anyone’s standards, a staple at the Woods Hole terminal, not only because he’s been with the SSA for more than 17 years, but also because of his outgoing and kindhearted spirit. If you have walked by him at any point, you’ve likely been the recipient of a wave or “How are you?” as you made your way to the boat or bus. On this particular day, the clouds and the wind make it feel like summer is farther away than ever, even though Memorial Day weekend is days away. “Don’t forget your sunscreen,” he deadpans.
Ford, a former Islander and current North Falmouth resident, was a math teacher until 2012, teaching in both the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and Falmouth High School. Until 2018, Ford was also a track coach at FHS (full disclosure: As a freshman at Falmouth High, I got an early introduction to his booming voice as I ran winter track). Before he retired, Ford began his work with the Steamship Authority at its Palmer Avenue lot, transitioning to his current post at the Woods Hole terminal in 2012, and in 2018, extending his gig in Woods Hole to include the time between April 1 and Dec. 1, as he left coaching behind.
Ford describes his primary job at the Steamship Authority as making people feel welcome, especially as he corrals the crowds from boats to buses and from buses to boats, trying to get everyone to their destination.
“I like them to feel welcome,” Ford said. “Everybody in the Steamship Authority does this, but I have more of an opportunity because I deal with so many people in large volumes.”
Seeing Ford in action, it is clear that this answer is self-effacing. As people unloaded from the Island Home following our conversation, he welcomed them with a “Happy Monday!” and even stopped to point a passenger in the direction of the local Walmart. It’s clear that he loves what he does.
“I’m sure you realize,” Ford joked, “I have a bit of a sense of humor, and I like to ad-lib a lot.”
Right now, as the season picks up, Ford is juggling the business of the construction wrapping at the Woods Hole terminal, as well as the throngs of tourists soon to arrive. When I asked him which was a harder audience, teens or tourists, he paused. “I’m happy doing this, and being a retired teacher, I don’t have to do this,” Ford said. “If it was difficult for me, I wouldn’t do this. I enjoy the challenge.”
Of course, there are a boatload of challenging moments rolling into the terminal each day, which motivates Ford. “My favorite part of the job is when 700 people come off the boat, and I can get them on the bus to go where they want to go, or vice versa,” Ford said. “I’m happy when people walk away smiling, and feel like they’re going to the right lot, or the right port.” For a competitive former athlete, coach, and math teacher, efficiency and problem-solving keep him motivated.
With the challenges, of course, come humor, fun, and memorable happy moments. Every day when Ford goes home, he tells his wife Terry the funny stories of the day, including one memorable moment, when a tourist adamantly insisted to Ford that the Steamship Authority provides service to Nova Scotia.
“I said, ‘It goes to Nova Scotia?’ Ford laughed. “I had to explain to her that we don’t go to Nova Scotia, but she was very adamant that she came here last year, and she rode our ferries up there.”
There’s also always the pleasant surprise of former students spotting Ford at the terminal. “I love seeing kids now who are adults, especially adults who now have children,” Ford said. He loves sharing his knowledge of the Island, especially if he gets to introduce young children to the Flying Horses in Oak Bluffs. For many who stumble across him after years have gone by, his booming coach and teacher voice make him instantly recognizable.
All of these moments for Ford fulfill what he feels is his job — to help people: “I like that they recognize that I’m glad that they’re enjoying their day.” Ford says that when it gets to early November, he will probably be looking forward to spending time off with his wife, children, and grandchildren — he soaks it all up; this year, he headed right from the sun in South Carolina with his daughter to the Steamship the next day.
For now, Ford says he’s not ready to slow down. “I like to come here every day, I like talking to people,” Ford said, “As long as I can do this, I’ll continue to do it.”