A fine journalist and great guy died Tuesday. The UPI.com obituary carried the basic facts: born, Winchester, Ind., March 1, 1926; died Cartersville, Ga., May 12, 2009; married, four sons; U.S. Army Air Corps in WWII; a 40-year career with United Press and United Press International: Southern Division sports editor, night editor, Georgia state editor and legislative correspondent; supervisory editor on national brodcast news desk, vice president and executive broadcast editor; UPI managing editor-national.
To flesh out those bare bones, ex-Unipressers who knew Billy have shared their reminiscences on the downhold listserv.
This is mine:
Bill Ferguson was the overnight editor on the national broadcast news desk (UPR) when I joined UPI 47 years ago this month, and I became one of his writers after a novitiate of about a month on the hectic dayside.
What came through as soon I had introduced myself to him was that he was a friendly, genuinely nice guy. He was always a bit disheveled – who on the overnight wasn’t? – and had a sort of “down home” manner and a staccato laugh that made his head bounce slightly up and down. He was an easy-going editor to work for. But there was no question that he was in charge, and when the teletype bells signaled a bulletin, down home became all business.
Billy was also a superb writer. He could turn out clean spare copy that was a model of of that "chatting with an old friend" style that we all wanted to achieve. We writers were to read the last “world news roundup” or “world in brief” to check for errors, to see how the desk had edited our copy and how the veterans did the job of rewriting newspaper copy for broadcast. There was no question which stories Billy had written, and reading them was not only was instructive but a pleasure.
Two other mainstays on the onite were Larry McCoy, who normally had the second desk, and Harry Stewart, a veteran going well back to the UP era. During breaks, they played a game they called “hall hockey.” The field was the highly polished corridor that ran alongside the newsroom, and the puck was the metal disk from the end of a roll of teletype paper. The play involved a great deal of shin kicking and shoving as one tried to get the disk to one end of the corridor while the other defended.
I thought Billy especially tolerant in putting up with that. But I learned that the nuttiness was part of UPI, and part of Billy’s work—and charm—was passing on the culture.
For his part, he told stories. I heard those Ed Rogers stories that have been repeated here. He also talked about putting Merriman Smith’s copy into readable condition, even writing for him, when Smitty was under the influence of a few juleps while covering President Eisenhower’s golfing trips to Augusta. My favorite was of a newly hired female, a recent college graduate, who showed up for her first day of work in the Atlanta bureau an hour or more before the appointed time. The restrooms were on alternating floors in the building, and the bureau was on the floor with the women’s. But there was a sink at the end of the room, and since no women worked in the bureau, on the overnight, at least, the men sometimes made use of it. So it was that a staffer was standing at the sink when the young woman opened the door across from it. “May I help you?” he said. She took one look at that member of the press and was never seen again. I can hear Billy’s laugh today.
With a wife and four sons and a UPI paycheck, Billy had a second job. And that, along with his overnight duties and his familial responsibilities, kept him tired much of the time. He would sometimes catch catnaps sitting at the desk, and if he came in early or had someone cover for him, he would go to the storeroom, stretch out on boxes of teletype paper or surplus copies of Hugh Baillie’s High Tension and take a longer snooze. I almost lost my new job when Dean Miller, then UPR manager, one night came in late and asked another relatively new staffer, Bill Roberts, where Billy was. I’m not sure what Roberts told him, but Miller found Billy in the storeroom. Later, Miller came up to me and said “Don’t ever lie to me again.” I don’t know, but I assume that Billy somehow cleared up the misunderstanding.
When we got to know each other better, once every couple of weeks, he and I would play golf right after work at the Glen View course. I had been a good caddy but was a lousy golfer. He was a serious about the game and pretty good at it. He seemed to race down the fairways, probably because he was taking fewer strokes than I. The teacher side of him did not show up on the golf course; I had a terrible slice, and I could not get his help in straightening it out. When I left for graduate school, I bequeathed my clubs to his boys and have not been on a course since.
In the summer of 1968, I was between graduate school and my first teaching job. Billy was the UPR manager by then, and he hired me as summer relief. I worked days, mostly, and some nights. Good guy that he was, he did not put me on the overnight. But I’m glad beyond measure that someone assigned me to that shift when he was running it.