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The Story- The Ford Connection (Peoria Journal Star)

PEORIA — Peoria Journal Star Newspaper, June 3, 2012  reported by Scott Hilyard

Winnie (Swearingen) Hays is probably one of the few people on this planet who met both Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford and current Ford executive chairman William Clay Ford Jr., Henry Ford’s great-grandson.

“They were both very nice,” Hays said.

In the summers of 1938 and 1939, Hays joined the Dorgan sisters of Bradford and a couple of other young single women on trips to Detroit and New York City in an open 1926 Ford Model T. The Dorgans made similar, and longer, trips every summer from 1935 to 1941. They called themselves the Gypsy Coeds.

The women posed with Henry Ford, American icon, in 1938 while seated in the car in the parking lot of Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., facility. Ford, wearing a three-piece suit and a taut, dimpled smile, is standing next to the car and holding a banded straw hat in his left hand. In summer dresses, the women are all smiling and look about as intimidated to be in the presence of the man who invented the automobile assembly plant as they would if the man was instead their own Uncle Henry.

Seventy-four years later, Hays got a second chance to meet a second Ford chief executive.

John Butte, whose mother Regina (Fennell) joined the Dorgans and Winnie Swearingen on the trip in 1939, found and purchased the car, called the Silver Streak, in memory of his mother, who died last year. It arrived back in central Illinois, from Oregon, in early April.

“I read in the Journal Star that William Clay Ford was going to be the commencement speaker at Bradley University in May,” Butte said. “I thought wouldn’t it be great to get the surviving members of the Gypsy Coeds to meet Mr. Ford in the same car that his great-grandfather stood next to when he posed for a picture with the girls.”

Butte used some Caterpillar Inc. and Bradley connections and helped make it happen.

“He came over and chatted with us and seemed very interested in the car and the history,” Hays said.

She sat in the back seat of the Silver Streak next to Helen Hickey, who took the 1937 trip to Canada to see the Dionne quintuplets, but did not meet Henry Ford.

Ford told the women that, born in 1957, he never met his great-grandfather, who died in 1947.

“He asked me what his great-grandfather was like and how he treated us when we met him,” Hays said.

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or Follow him on Twitter @scotthilyard.

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