Amherst Magazine

David W. Ferguson '75

David W. Ferguson, a beloved member of the class of 1975 whose personal grace and intellectual power inspired all who knew him, died May 29, 2005, at his home in Palo Alto, CA. A talented attorney and devoted family man, he was the victim of brain cancer at the age of fifty-two.

He was survived by his loving wife, Nancy, whom he met while at Amherst, and their children, Alec, Jessie and Sarah, as well as three sisters, Margaret, Gretchen and Mary. Beyond Amherst, David was a graduate of Yale Law School and a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell, for whom he moved west a few years ago to establish the firm’s California office. He served every community he ever lived in, through a variety of cultural and civic roles, and was an avid sportsman and musician. At Amherst, he won the Samuel Walley Brown Prize as the outstanding member of the sophomore class and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior before graduating summa cum laude in Economics.

“Fergie,” as he was affectionately known to his Amherst friends, was a larger-than-life figure in the class, remembered for his friendliness and his all-round scholastic, athletic and musical abilities. He was a natural leader among classmates who did not defer easily, and he spread the wealth of his talents widely, tutoring fraternity brothers through Economics, challenging teammates to push themselves on the soccer field and performing Beatles tunes on request at the piano. He continued his leadership of the class many years later as president leading up to the 25th Reunion and as a candidate for college trustee in 2004. In a final and fateful Amherst connection, David’s passing came on the last day of his class’s 30th Reunion, where his many friends spoke of how much they missed seeing him.

Because he was so recently a trustee candidate and the news of his death followed so closely on the reunion, we have both his own words and those of many classmates to share.

In his trustee bid, he described his Amherst experience as “deeply personal.” He treasured “the chance for intellectual and social growth that Amherst has always provided,” and credited his professors with helping to “dissolve barriers to knowledge that I had felt in public high school.”

“Socially, I was warmed and transformed by the cohesiveness—and the fortunate diversity—of my Amherst classmates,” he said in his personal statement circulated as part of his trustee candidacy.

Always confident but also unassuming, David may not have fully appreciated how much he himself contributed to the warmth and transformative power of the college. His classmates, who learned of his death by e-mail following the reunion, universally remembered him as both brilliant and supportive.

“Our class has lost a good and kind man, who led us with the brilliance of his intellect and depth of his connection to the college,” wrote Peter Wise, who followed David as class president.

“As a student he was generous and thoughtful, and I am sure he was the same as a parent and professional,” added Jeff Dykens, elected to succeed Peter as president at the May reunion.

One of his closest friends, Bill Rawson, who may have been the last in the class to see David before his death, said he showed typical courage through his illness. “I had a chance to visit with David and Nancy over lunch at their home in March of this year. David was clearly ill, but in many ways, he was the same person we knew at Amherst. …He spoke candidly about his illness. He expressed optimism, which he acknowledged was not rational (and therefore very unlike David), but with Nancy at his side, his optimism was understandable.”

Bill recalled that “Nancy entered David’s life during our senior year, and it was no surprise—and a very happy event—when they later married. Nancy’s (holiday) letters over the years reflected their warm and wonderful family life… David was a loving father and husband.”

Among Bill’s personal reflections was of his experience with David on the soccer field. “Junior year, I arrived at pre-season camp out of shape … I was a returning starter and David was projected to be a sub, but he could see the situation I was in. He became my running mate in drills, encouraged me to push hard the last few yards of our sprints, and got me over the hump. He didn’t want to see me fall short of what I could accomplish, and cared enough to do something about it.”

“David was one of the brightest persons in our class,” concluded Bill, his long-time roommate, “and also one of the finest individuals. He embodied goodness and knowledge to the greatest degree, and as a result, lived a productive life.”

Chuck Berman, who lived near David for a time in Palo Alto, underscored his rare ability to keep pushing himself. “When I spoke with him after his first round in the hospital, he expressed no concern for the future. … I hope he finds the same peace wherever he might be.”

PK Kolisch, a former DU fraternity brother and roommate, recalled that David once told him he wanted to change careers every five years. “And in some respects his life showed that diversity, though he stayed a lawyer,” PK wrote after traveling to Palo Alto to attend the family’s memorial service. “He won a Watson fellowship to study the rail industry in France following Amherst, Yale law school, law practice in New York City with a stint in Paris, travels in India and Nepal, bicycling always, mountain climbing Kilimanjaro, Rainier, Grand Teton, the Andes (many with the family). … For me, I will carry the memory of a great guy who loved life, who never got down about anything or anyone.”

“David was one of those people who was absolutely into getting the most out of life,” remembered Chaunce Benedict. “Here was a guy totally settled with his family and law practice in New York, yet willing in mid-forties to pick everything up and move to Palo Alto to establish a new office for Davis Polk.”

“He was brilliant in a versatile way,” wrote Jamie Stoller, “with easy mastery of science (e.g., Alan Kropf’s thermodynamics and the dreaded organic) and in the social sciences. … The world is better for David’s having been here, albeit for too short a time.”

“He never displayed any self-obsession,” remarked John Williams, a life trustee of the college and fellow Economics major while at Amherst. “He was a man of great accomplishment, yet he remained a nice guy.”

Not to mention a mini-Hercules, it seemed at times. Peter Zheutlin recalled being astonished on one trip to a Williams game to find that David had cycled all the way there. “Even before I became a cyclist,” said Peter, “I remember thinking of this as a superhuman feat because the car I had at the time could barely climb those hills on Route 2.”

“The thing I remember most about Dave is his cheerfulness, his smile and joking,” wrote Carol MacKinnon. “The image I carry most vividly in my mind is more recent: of him walking across the living room of one of our reunion headquarters late on Sunday morning, grinning and waving goodbye … uttering the words, ‘See you in five years!’”

It was exactly that image that brought the full weight of the loss home to many. “I learned of Dave’s death through Jim Kennedy’s e-mail, when I returned home from our 30th Reunion,” wrote Marc Stadler. “I had not known the severity of Dave’s illness until that weekend and had hoped to see him there.” Marc remembered another familiar, older image of “Fergie”: “You could see him coming from across the quad—the baggie khakis, the lively gestures involving the entire arm. … I remember one clear, idyllic New England autumn day when I asked him, just on a lark, if he wanted to see if we could get to the top of Johnson Chapel. Somehow, we talked our way right up the narrow tower to the highest point on campus. …We took pictures, which I lost long ago, but I won’t forget that day when I was on top of the Amherst world with Fergie.”

After Amherst, Renny Merritt remembered being on top of a very different world with his fellow Watson scholar and western New York native. Renny said David came to visit him in Japan in 1976 and arrived just in time for a road trip with friends to the Hot Springs Resort. “As far as I can recall, we all spent most of the next two days in kimonos and raised wooden sandals, taking scalding baths at least five times a day and drinking sake out of wooden cups. So, except for the backdrop and a few of the props, not that different from a DU Toga Party.”

Following David’s death, his family set up the David W. Ferguson Memorial Fund at Amherst to which contributions may be made in care of the Office of Development. Friends also may wish to make their annual alumni contributions in David’s name. In an even more poignant memorial, those classmates who attended the recent reunion planned to plant a tree in David’s memory to replace one uprooted on campus during a reunion-weekend storm.

At a time when so many in the class, particularly those who gathered for the reunion, were thinking about the next stage of their lives, the loss of David Ferguson seemed to cast as long a shadow as that fallen tree once did.

“It is indeed a paradox that someone with as fine a mind as Dave Ferguson was felled by a disease of the brain,” Norman Tobias reflected. “Composer Beethoven’s genius was in his ear and he made himself deaf during his lifetime. The genius of authors John Milton and James Joyce (and perhaps even Homer) was in their eyes and they made themselves blind during their lifetimes. … Dave passed away twenty-five years too early.”

Carol MacKinnon added this perfect passage from Thoreau’s Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately … I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

Dave Ferguson—the larger-than-life “Fergie” of wide grin and baggie khakis— certainly advanced confidently in the direction of his dreams, and as these reflections so clearly demonstrate, his uncommon life had an impact on his class that will endure years beyond those we were able to share with him.


—Jim Kennedy

 

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