JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Mike Ford, a Washington County commissioner and longtime head of the kitchen at the Washington County Detention Center, died early Monday, family members confirmed to News Channel 11.

Ford, a native of the Fordtown community (Sulphur Springs), died after a brief illness. He is survived by his wife, Jan, and a son, Michael Hawkins.

Commissioner Mike Ford (Photo: Washington County, TN)

He was the brother of Dale Ford, who served as a state representative representing Tennessee’s 6th District from 2006-2012.

Brenda Downes started at the detention center in 1993, a year before Ford, and worked with him for 24 years. She remembered Ford as someone who took pride in his work and liked to share news of his large family.

“We had big families in common,” said Downes, who left her role as chief jail administrator after winning the circuit court clerk position in 2018. “He’d talk a lot about his family, I’d talk a lot about mine.”

Ford was known for the large community meals he and Dale Ford would prepare. He also sang in a quartet with Dale, one of eight boys and five girls in the large family.

“He’d do people’s weddings, he’d do fundraisers if a person’s house caught on fire — he’d do meals for them,” Downes said.

She said Ford was also known statewide for his professionalism at the jail, where he started in 1994 after an earlier stint at Asbury Nursing Home in Johnson City.

“He took pride in not only his work and his cooking but his kitchen,” Downes said. “Every time we we’d go through a jail inspection, he would chase me down (and ask), ‘how’d we do, how’d we do?’ I’d say, ‘Mike you were the least of my worries.’”

Downes said Ford’s reputation came to the fore when other jail kitchens would do poorly during inspections.

“When other jails had kitchens in horrible shape, the inspectors would say, ‘you need to call Mike Ford.'”

Downes said Ford was genuine — and treated everyone with dignity.

“He trained the inmates and treated them like people,” she said. “A lot of them went on to get jobs in kitchens and one even became a manager. He took pride in that.”

The relationship put Ford in a special place among commissioners when Downes would greet them at monthly meetings after she became clerk.

“I’d walk walk around and say hello to people but Mike always got a hug. I thought the world of Mike Ford.”

Ford was appointed to the county commission in 2011. He ran for and won re-election in 2014 and 2018 and served in the 15th District.

“He was a good commissioner,” fellow county commissioner Kent Harris told News Channel 11 Monday. “He was very opinionated and didn’t care to speak up when he thought he should.”

Washington County released a statement regarding Ford’s death, noting that in his role at the jail he maintained one of lowest costs per meal of any detention facility in Tennessee. Ford was known for “jailhouse cookies” that he baked for prisoners, commissioners and county staff.

“Commission Ford served his District well and his first commitment was always to his constituents,” Commission Chairman Greg Matherly said in the statement. “He loved his community and I will miss him.”

Ford served on the Agriculture Extension Committee, Committee for Resale of Land, County Owned Property, Emergency Communications District 911 Board, Rules and Employee Compensation and Benefits. 

“Commissioner Ford was a great representative for his constituents, and a thoughtful commissioner when it came time to vote,” Mayor Joe Grandy added as part of the statement. “He will be greatly missed, especially the way he led the Pledge of Allegiance at most commission and committee meetings. He always began with ‘let’s honor America’ and for him, it was an honor to lead the pledge and to serve his community.”

Downes said she has fond memories of Ford’s retirement party last June, including posing for a picture with him.

“Right after that Jan and Mike were tearing up the dance floor,” she said.

This is a developing story.