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Remembering Richard Q. Ford, PhD

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By Margaret Parish, PhD

Dick Ford, PhDRichard Q. Ford, who ran the psychological testing service at Austen Riggs for over 20 years, died peacefully on April 25. During the past several months, he faced death calmly with his family at his side, exchanging notes and letters with many former students, patients, colleagues, and friends who have known and loved him during his long life. 

Having learned from some of the pioneers in psychoanalytic assessment, Dick preserved and transmitted a tradition of understanding with great seriousness and dedication. Every Thursday morning at Riggs the psychology fellows–and sometimes a few others–meet in a seminar to study the psychological testing of one patient. Leading the seminar, Dick would let meaning emerge from the data, focusing intently, listening carefully, speaking deliberately. Eminently courteous and good humored, he worked in a soft, deep, serious voice; open to hearing all perspectives, he was fierce in fighting for a point. He had endless patience and would not allow anyone to hurry, to skip a step, to ignore something that didn’t fit, or to jump to any facile conclusions. Fellows fondly joked about his favorite metaphors for complicated engagement (“boxers in a clinch”). On weekends, he meticulously edited the fellow’s written reports, insisting on clarity of prose. 

Understanding another human mind is no small feat. Most psychologists build scaffolding on which to hang categories, and many who do formal assessments have templates for their test reports. Dick taught us always to start with the individual and let the data be our guide, much as one does in good psychotherapy, working to understand the person first on his or her own terms. While our minds have much in common, they can also be quite different, and taking the time to hear what someone is saying about themselves, before imposing upon them our own preconceptions, is a painstaking and difficult process. As a testing method it is hard to preserve. Science loves generalizations and so do busy clinicians: always at risk of getting lost in the territories of the mad mind, we crave anchor points and signposts and little boxes. It takes extraordinary skill and courage to leave all that aside for a moment to explore the unknown of one other individual. 

Dick had tremendous skill and methodical discipline in both testing and psychotherapy; he was also a man of integrity and deep kindness. Which of these attributes has been of more help to others over the years is an open question, but what stands out in memory is his kindness. A month before his passing, he affirmed this in a note to a former colleague: “I rejoice in passing on the Riggs tradition as I have received it. This tradition is at the heart of our strength. We must not diminish it, especially the emphasis on integrity and friendliness. As I read it these are our most important attributes for our former patients.”

Dick’s family has arranged a memorial service at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, July 6th at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown. 

Read Dick Ford's obituary.

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