O.J. Ferguson's influence still felt today
by Deb Derrick
As a young boy, Bob Ferguson was already trying to live up to his father's example. Olin J. Ferguson, engineering dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 1920 to 1945, was highly regarded across campus and in the community. "In those days," said Tom Anderson (EE '39), "he was equivalent to God."
So in 1938, Bob set out to study engineering at UNL, just as his father had done. It would not be easy.
"My first experience with 'like father, like son' came with physics class in my freshman year. In that austere auditorium, 'T-square Smith' was behind his table calling the first roll call. He reached the F's and read my name. Then he paused and looked up toward where my voice had come from:
"Ferguson..." he said. "Are you in any way related to Dean O. J. Ferguson?'
"Yes sir, I am one of his sons."
"Aha!" he challenged. "We are expecting great things from you."
From humble beginnings, O. J. Ferguson had already accomplished great things. By 1938, he had authored two textbooks, published numerous papers and advanced to the position of dean at his alma mater. Today his name—on the college's highest student award—is synonymous with excellence. A visionary leader and teacher, Ferguson set high standards for himself and expected no less from his students.
"Any college professor who is so sterile as to lecture to his class by doling out the subject matter of the textbook assignment," he once said, "should be quietly chloroformed. Any college student who is so dull-witted as to need that kind of an instructor should be dropped into the lake."
Ferguson's visionary leadership was needed to guide the college through a tumultuous period in U.S. history marked by Prohibition, the stock market crash, the Great Depression and World War II. It fell on his shoulders to help mediate the notorious engineering/law feuds of the 1920s and 1930s (although he was surely sympathetic to the cause). After an alumnus was arrested at a university dance for bootlegging, he wrote that "...the university can never expect to be entirely free from some of the untoward events that receive our thorough condemnation and too much newspaper publicity."
"One only has to look at a few of the 27 issues of the annual college reports he wrote, or some of his 165 columns in the Nebraska Blueprint...to see that Ferguson was a capable, caring and popular department head and dean," writes John Boye in One Hundred Years of Excellence. "He always had the best interests of the students at heart."
Born in 1875 in Ilinois, Ferguson moved with his family at the age of three to Nebraska to homestead farm land. The family settled in Dorchester, where they farmed and attended the Baptist church. His father, a country school teacher, had an unruly student who started a fight at school one day and threw a writing slate at him. Some of the shards penetrated his skull. He eventually died from the injury in 1883, leaving his wife with five children and a farm to run.
Ferguson's mother remarried a neighbor, a widower with several children. Ferguson finished high school in 1890, enrolled at UNL and got a job with the railroad in Lincoln. He graduated in industrial engineering in 1903 and went to work for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y.
The timing was fortuitous. Charles Proteus Steinmetz was at GE and engaged in teaching at Union College. Only four feet tall, Steinmetz was a giant in the field of electrical engineering who was one of the most brilliant and inventive scientists of his day—and a well-known Socialist. Ferguson became Steinmetz's graduate student and right-hand man. He obtained his master's degree in 1909 and taught with Steinmetz at Union College. He also edited a couple of Steinmetz's textbooks and wrote the curricula for a doctorate of electrical engineering.
"Every time he worked with Steinmetz," said Bob Ferguson, "he would hand Dad one of his cigars. Now Dad did not smoke, drink, dance or play cards. But if Charles Proteus Steinmetz handed him a cigar, Dad took it."
"I have no idea how many cigars Dad stored away in his roll top desk, but he brought 'em all back to Lincoln when NU hired him. My older brother, Richard, had a nose for raiding Dad's store of pencils and found those cigars. He slipped one in his pocket and later tried that stogie out. It made him sicker than a dog."
O. J. Ferguson married Hannah M. Ferriss in 1907. Elizabeth, the first of four children, was bom in 1908. Richard was bom in 1911. The following year, Ferguson secured a position as EE department chair at UNL. The family moved to Lincoln to a three-story house on North 30th Street. In 1920, Ferguson was appointed Dean of Engineering.
By now the Ferguson family was well established in Lincoln. Bob was bom in 1920 and Ruth in 1922. Ferguson often invited students to dinner at his house and bought several students YMCA memberships to keep them out of trouble. He was active in the First Baptist Church and helped plan the construction of the building at the comer of 13th and K Streets.
When Bob was seven or eight, the family moved to a home his parents designed and built at 2772 Rathbone Road. "This was the first really nice place the folks could afford and they really enjoyed it," said Bob, "as did the four kids and attending dogs."
During the summers, they went camping and fishing (and found the raspberry and blueberry patches before the bears did). In 1923, they built a prefab cottage on Pine Island in northern Minnesota. Jack Provost (ME '49), a friend of Bob's, joined them there in the summer of 1939.
"At the time my family was very poor and I was without a father at home," Provost recalled. "I had many occasions to talk to Bob's dad about life in general and what I must do to have a meaningful and productive life. He encouraged me to go into engineering, which I later did and have never been sorry for that decision. He said to do whatever it takes, or however long it takes, to get that degree. How right he was!"
O.J. Ferguson always left an impression on those he met. "He was known as the 'rock-a-bye professor,'" Bob said. "In his attempt to be perfectly descriptive, he had a terrible tendency to stop for a minute to search his mind for the right word. The conversation would come to a halt. But you soon learned not to fill in the word for him. He hated that. You waited until the right word came out."
"I don't believe I was ever summoned to the carpet in the Dean's Office," said Bruce Stafford (EE '43). "I do remember going to see him to have him sign my homemade Sigma Tau initiation paddle. He was most gracious."
Ferguson always had a full pencil bucket on his desk. "Other professors like Edison and Morris would wander into his office," said Bob, "and after talking and figuring with the pencils, they would leave and take Dad's pencils with them. So with his jack knife, he shaved a flat spot on several pencils, and with a pen, wrote "STOLEN FROM FERGUSON" on the shaved area. Once in a while, he'd tour the building and recover his pencils."
Ferguson's longtime secretary, Maud Mildred Melick, was indispensable. He would write her notes and, in his mathematical language, addressed the notes to M3. "Miss Melick's typing was all done with the same two fingers I use," Bob said, "but I type while watching the keyboard. She never did!"
"Her memory, as was Dad's, was faultless. Every student who came in to see him was called by his or her first name, even those who'd graduated years before."
The consummate teacher always found a classroom. "I can't remember any dinner that wasn't accompanied by arithmetic, vocabulary or maybe a simple physics or chemistry question," Bob said. "Dad sat at the head of the table and Mom at the other end, with her back to the swinging gate door to the kitchen. Dad would give the younger kids arithmetic problems to do in our heads. He'd say, Take 14, add 17, subtract 4. Then reverse the digits and what's your answer?' Somebody would shout '72' and Dad would say 'correct.'"
"As we got older, the problems got harder. Elizabeth and Dick had learned some analytic geometry. Those problems were way out of reach for the two younger kids. So Ruth and I made up our own routine of nonsensical stuff. We still call each other up and go through that routine," Bob said. chuckling. "It reminds us of Dad—his technique of leading you into something over your head that lingers there until you work out something that makes sense."
"What was he like as a parent? Oh boy! He was the kind of person that would prompt Mom to say 'Just wait 'til your father gets home.' But his punishments were never severe... except the time he found a pint bottle of whiskey in the mulch pile behind the garage.
''He was darn sure the two girls were innocent, and I was too young to have even thought of such a breech of religious sanctity. That left my big brother. Dick. There were quiet consultations going on that evening after dinner. No raised voices, no yelling. But Dick appeared to have been cowed and went to bed early After then, he was home in the evenings more than usual, and he spent more time with textbooks instead of'Dorothy' over at the Tri-Delt sorority house."
Neither Dick nor Bob would disappoint their father. Dick (now deceased) graduated in mechanical engineering in 1933. He went to work for HDR and was the designer and construction engineer on the project to enclose Memorial Stadium. Bob switched to business administration and enjoyed a successful career with Gates Rubber Company. Elizabeth graduated in Fine Arts and Ruth majored in music. All are UNL alumni.
Ferguson stepped down as dean in 1945 and returned to his department chair position. He retired in 1949. The college honored him by naming its highest student award, the O.J. Ferguson Award, after liim. He played a major part in the design of Ferguson Hall, the electrical engineering building. The building, dedicated in 1951, was the first building on campus to be named after a living person. Ferguson remained active on campus until about 1960. By the time he died in 1965, according to Boye, he had personal contact with more than 19,000 students.
"Learning is coterminous with life," Ferguson once said. "If we learn how to learn with little loss of time and effort, the accomplishment pays cumulative dividends."
In 1941, Stephen Fraenkel, a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Europe and a civil engineering student in Nebraska, turned to Dean O.J. Ferguson to intercede with U.S. immigration officials. As Fraenkel wrote to Bob Ferguson, "My status in the United States, though legal, was tenuous, having been admitted only as a student. The support of your father was in fact a crucial element and the enclosure speaks for itself." Fraenkel lives in Winnetka, Ill. and is a consulting engineer. The following is excerpted from Ferguson's letter to the U.S. Department of Justice:
"This letter constitutes a request that Stefan Josef Fraenkel be authorized to negotiate an 'Industrial Fellowship' for the year 1941-42, or such portions thereof as may be found practicable, under the sponsorship of the College of Engineering, University of Nebraska.
Your records will show that Mr. Fraenkel is in the United States under a student visa, the latest extension of which carries to Febr. 15,1942. He is a subject of Germany, but is in the proscribed group, being of Jewish blood-.At the present time he is a candidate for the degree ofM.Sc. in C.E., with the expectation of finishing in June, 1941. Mr. Fraenkel is anxious to become an American citizen, but under his present status the consummation of that desire is impossible...
Fraenkel is a high-class student and shows distinct engineering ability. It is highly desirable that he be given practical experience in connection with his college work, and I am informed by Mr. J. Raleigh Nelson, of the University of Michigan, that under certain circumstances Industrial Fellowships have been allowed foreign students in order to accomplish such results. We therefore request authorization to proceed with this plan, with the understanding that the University of Nebraska would be responsible for Mr. Fraenkel and continue to keep you informed regarding him."
Many thanks to Bob Ferguson and his family for their help with this story and photos. O.J. Ferguson quotes and other background information were taken from One Hundred Years of Excellence, written by Dr. A. John Boye. The book, a history of the UNL Electrical Engineering Department, is available for purchase from the department.