‘No doubt... he was for Texarkana’

Bobby Fer­gu­son, long­time Ar­kan­sas-side mayor, re­mem­bered for his pas­sion, care for the com­mu­nity

Texarkana Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - By Christy Busby

In his trade­mark “lit­tle red hat” or sports coats, Bobby Fer­gu­son had a decades-long pas­sion and drive to make Texarkana, Ark., a bet­ter place to live and work.

Fer­gu­son died Tues­day. He was 84.

Fer­gu­son served on the city board from 1964 to 1992, 18 of those years as mayor.

But he was well known in the state and na­tion’s capi­tols, fos­ter­ing con­nec­tions that over time par­layed into an es­ti­mated $73 mil­lion in grant fund­ing for his beloved Texarkana, Ark., said Jerry Shipp, Fer­gu­son’s long­time friend and busi­ness part­ner.

“Bobby was a wheeler dealer … There was no doubt about it, he was for Texarkana,” he said.

He was was on first-name ba­sis with peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and they would say ‘Hey Mayor, you’re back.’ Wher­ever he went, he left an im­pres­sion and peo­ple knew him by sight,” Shipp said.

For more for­mal events, his sports coats, par­tic­u­larly the ones in the red fam­ily, were a fa­vorite to dis­play his Ra­zor­back pride. But for ev­ery­day wear, Fer­gu­son opted for his red hat and guayabera shirts with four patch pock­ets. He also dis­trib­uted click­ers, whis­tles and pa­per clips with catchy slo­gans tout­ing his can­di­dacy.

Shipp met Fer­gu­son in high school, and the two were were busi­ness part­ners in Porky’s Food Ser­vice for 32 years. Shipp also did a 20-year stint on the Miller County Quo­rum Court.

“Bobby was just a col­or­ful per­son. You may not like him, but you liked be­ing around him … Bobby and I were part of the orig­i­nal Steak­house Gang. Back then, that was the place,” Shipp said. Cat­tle­man’s Steak House was owned then by Roy Oliver.

Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal po­lit­i­cal lore, the city’s fate was de­cided in the pri­vacy of a back room of the sto­ried State Line Av­enue es­tab­lish­ment.

The Steak­house Gang had the power, the stroke, the votes and the con­nec­tions to state and na­tional politi­cians.

From time to time, politi­cians such as Bill Clin­ton re­port­edly dropped by when in town.

Fer­gu­son was a tire­less am­bas­sador and ser­vant of Texarkana, Shipp tells.

“Dur­ing Cham­ber of Com­merce and leg­isla­tive days, Bobby and I would cook ribs and chili and take it up to Lit­tle Rock and serve it. He was so well-known through­out Ar­kan­sas,” he said.

Fer­gu­son even put some of the state politi­cians in a serv­ing role, lit­er­ally, while they were in Texarkana.

“Bobby and I used to host po­lit­i­cal events and when

(Bill) Clin­ton was gov­er­nor, we had served chicken at the (Four States) Fair­grounds. Around 1,700 peo­ple came and ate. We had all politi­cians, Beryl An­thony, David Pryor and they had to serve the food. It gave them the chance to di­rectly con­nect with the vot­ers,” he said.

Fer­gu­son was mas­ter­ful at the art of com­pro­mise, Shipp said.

Fer­gu­son is re­mem­bered as the po­lit­i­cal ar­chi­tect of the Bi-State Jus­tice Build­ing which, upon its open­ing in the mid1980s, housed law en­force­ment of­fices, jail space, court­rooms for the two Texarkanas and Bowie and Miller coun­ties.

Ob­tain­ing fund­ing for a ma­jor over­haul of a lo­cal waste­water treat­ment plant and work­ing deals so Texarkana could re­ceive wa­ter from Mill­wood Lake are also among Fer­gu­son’s ma­jor ac­com­plish­ments, Shipp said.

Fer­gu­son is cred­ited with ap­point­ing the first black mem­ber of the city board, the Rev. Lon­dell Wil­liams.

“He was smart, he was level-headed, he had a sense of un­der­stand­ing, the know how of get­ting along with peo­ple. He had per­son­al­ity and Fer­gu­son is class per­son­i­fied. All this goes beyond re­proach,” Wil­liams said.

The two met when Fer­gu­son would visit Wil­liams’ fa­ther at the fam­ily’s home in the Iron Moun­tain ad­di­tion.

“We had a lot of fun. Fer­gu­son would keep us in stitches. He was a nice fel­low to be around,” Wil­liams said.

Fer­gu­son had a well-known aver­sion to fly­ing.

“It be­gan when Bobby was on a plane cir­cling Texarkana and it couldn’t land. Bobby never flew no more,” Wil­liams said.

Wil­liams also shared Fer­gu­son’s dis­like of fly­ing.

“I told him, “It may not be my time, it may not be your time, but it may be the pi­lot’s time,’” Wil­liams said.

The two men also have some­thing else in com­mon.

“Fer­gu­son is the long­est serv­ing city board mem­ber after me,” said Wil­liams, who served 37 years on the city board and even a stint as mayor.

Hu­bert Easley spent about 12 years on the city board while Fer­gu­son was mayor, and he made sev­eral road trips to Lit­tle Rock and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. with him.

“Many times we would bor­row a po­lice car to make the trips in. We had some good things to hap­pen from that, driv­ing a car with an an­tenna and some­times it was loaded with guns we didn’t know any­thing about, but it all worked out for Texarkana. Bobby was al­ways look­ing for some way to get a project go­ing that would ben­e­fit Texarkana. That was his goal,” he said.

“If we were on a trip and if we had some sched­ule to meet, we would drive at night some­times and right now I can see why that was not a good idea, but we were al­ways for­tu­nate and never had a col­li­sion,” he said.

Easley re­calls Fer­gu­son tire­lessly ad­vo­cat­ing for an Ar­kan­sas Boule­vard over­pass travers­ing what is now In­ter­state 49. Be­fore the over­pass, the two roads in­ter­sected and sev­eral fa­tal ac­ci­dents oc­curred there.

“He did get a lot of things done. He nearly al­ways had a ma­jor project he was work­ing on … whether it was the sewer sys­tem, wa­ter sys­tem, streets or bridges. He worked for the peo­ple,” Easley said.

“He was a great mayor, maybe the best mayor Texarkana, Ark., ever had. Bobby had ways of find­ing out where the money was and then he knew how to get it. That’s not to say you wouldn’t have dis­agree­ments some­times, but it al­ways worked out for the best,” Easley said.

Easley later be­came Miller County judge, and the ex­pe­ri­ence he had serv­ing with Fer­gu­son was great for his new role.

Ermer Pon­dex­ter, who worked for the city for 27 years, re­mem­bers Fer­gu­son help­ing her get the job.

“From that day for­ward, it seems as though up­ward mo­bil­ity was a thing for me in as much as I was able to do some things I would not have been able to do be­cause they or­di­nar­ily would have been a no-no,” she said.

“Bobby was a man who re­gard­less of race, creed or color felt all peo­ple de­served a chance. He never said that, but in my heart I felt that com­ing from Bobby,” Pon­dex­ter said.

Pon­dex­ter headed up the Re­tired Se­nior Vol­un­teer Pro­gram for most of her time at the city. The pro­gram mo­bi­lized re­tirees into vol­un­teers through­out a nine-county area. The lo­cal pro­gram be­came the third high­est per­form­ing in the state.

“That’s be­cause I had the back­ing of Mayor Bobby Fer­gu­son. I knew he wanted the best for the pro­gram. He was back­ing me in the en­deav­ors I was try­ing to un­der­take,” she said.

He was also in­te­gral in find­ing the space and the funds for a boot camp tar­get­ing chil­dren who were strug­gling aca­dem­i­cally.

“We served 62 kids every sum­mer for three years. All but two of those stu­dents passed the grade level the fol­low­ing year. All the peo­ple (serv­ing) were mil­i­tary re­tirees and ac­tive mil­i­tary per­son. The chil­dren went through the pro­ce­dures the mil­i­tary used,” Pon­dex­ter said.

“Bobby was an in­stru­ment in this com­mu­nity and was not there just to be seen. He took ac­tion in­stead of just talk­ing like some peo­ple. He, un­like some of the oth­ers, fol­lowed be­hind his com­mit­ment. He made ac­tion on it,” she said. “He was a man of prin­ci­pal­ity, a man of his word, a man of wisdom and he saw things in the fu­ture that would be of ben­e­fit to Texarkana, Ar­kan­sas and sur­round­ing ar­eas.”

Upon leav­ing the mayor’s of­fice, Fer­gu­son was never far from pol­i­tics or pub­lic ser­vice.

He served on the Texarkana, Ark., School Dis­trict board for eight months in an ap­pointed po­si­tion in the mid-1990s. In 2005, then-Gov. Mike Huck­abee ap­pointed Fer­gu­son as Miller County Dis­trict 3 Jus­tice of the Peace for a twoyear term after the death of Dan Fulce.

In 2006, Fer­gu­son made an un­suc­cess­ful bid for the mayor’s seat. He also helped in the cam­paigns of sev­eral city politi­cos.

Just months be­fore his death, Fer­gu­son was work­ing on a project for the Genoa Wa­ter Dis­trict. He was also serv­ing on the Ar­kan­sas Mo­tor Ve­hi­cle Com­mis­sion.

Travis Dowd, a long­time friend of Fer­gu­son’s and a for­mer state rep­re­sen­ta­tive, said Fer­gu­son was one of a kind.

“He was some­thing else. He was a lit­tle banty rooster, I tell ya. He would con­stantly think about the city. He could never get it out of his sys­tem. He would call me and say, ‘I think I ought to do this and I ought to do that.’ We talked on the phone every day… He would call me in the morn­ings and we would just visit,” Dowd said.

“I think there were sev­eral city of­fi­cials who would still call him about find­ing some records and he knew where they were. He kept his mind on the city,” Dowd said.

Though Fer­gu­son had a vi­va­cious per­son­al­ity, he was mod­est in other ways, Shipp said.

“Bobby was never one to show out. He didn’t wear fancy clothes, he didn’t drive a fancy car and he didn’t live in a fancy house. He was a com­mon man do­ing com­mon things. His po­lit­i­cal ca­reer was ex­tremely stout. He had many con­nec­tions through the coun­try. Most peo­ple knew him as Mayor or Fergy,” Shipp said.

“If you saw Bobby around town, you’d see him in that lit­tle red hat and those shirts with two pock­ets up top and two be­low. He had some­thing in every damned pocket,” he said. “He wore out those notepads with the wire rings. He’d take notes, dab­bing the pen to his tongue. You’d ask him some­thing and he’d pull out a note­book, go­ing through page after page, but he’d find the in­for­ma­tion.”

Fer­gu­son was also known for what he handed out: rulers, click­ers, whis­tles and pa­per clips with catchy slo­gans such as “Keep our city click­ing. Bobby Fer­gu­son Mayor.”

“I’m sure gonna miss him and the red hats and click­ers,” Dowd said.

“I told him once, ‘Hell,

Bobby, let me buy you a new red hat.’ He said, ‘No, this is the one I want.’”

“He al­ways had that damned lit­tle old clicker when he would go to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. or Lit­tle Rock. We’d go into the gov­er­nor’s of­fice and the first thing he would do is click it,” Dowd said.

Fer­gu­son al­ways had a way of keep­ing the city click­ing.

“He is go­ing out in style in a red cas­ket and his red hat,” Shipp said.

Sub­mit­ted photo

n BOBBY FER­GU­SON, for­mer Ar­kan­sas-side mayor

Staff photo by Evan Lewis

n Bobby Fer­gu­son liked to dis­trib­ute po­lit­i­cal sou­venirs, like these click­ers that say, “Let’s Get Our City ‘Click­ing.’”

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