Noe Valley Voice November 2001

John Ferguson--A Good Samaritan Until the End

By Heidi Anderson

When John Ferguson asked how you were, he really wanted to know. And if you weren't doing terribly well, he'd try to help.

In fact, he was counseling people at Eden Villa Hospice as he himself was dying, from complications related to heart disease. Ferguson, a parishioner of St. Paul's Church for 45 years, died on July 22, 2001. He was 78.

Looking out for others was a way of life for Ferguson, born in Philadelphia in 1923. He was a social worker in San Francisco for more than 40 years, specializing in tending to the needy in the Tenderloin and South of Market. He also was married and raised a family of three children. His wife of 33 years, Jean, died in 1981.

For most of his career, Ferguson worked for Catholic Social Services and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. For a time, he served as director of the halfway house Oliver House. When he retired, Ferguson branched into programs for seniors, such as the San Francisco Senior Center at Aquatic Park and Senior Resources at Grace Cathedral.

He also took on Upper Noe Valley, his home since 1955. Each day, he made the rounds of 30th and Church streets, meeting friends and seeking out elderly neighbors who might be sick, lonely, or disabled.

Jorge Santis, program coordinator at On Lok 30th Street Senior Services, knew Ferguson as a volunteer for over 16 years. "He was a fixture here," says Santis. "He'd come in and help people with some of the more practical problems like filling out forms, finding them the right agencies and city resources."

Santis says Ferguson made quite an impression, too. "Oh, he was a ladies' man, a handsome fellow. He always came to our dances."

Because many people who attend programs at On Lok are Spanish-speaking, Ferguson also took Spanish lessons for years at the 30th Street location.

Noe Street resident Frances Payne, a friend for 30 years, remembers how Ferguson helped her brother navigate city and state agencies as he took care of their father, who had suffered a stroke. From then on, Ferguson and her brother were best friends.

"About this time last year, my brother was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease," Payne says. "I was taking care of him, but he wouldn't let me make any decisions for things like Medicare or anything else without first consulting John."

Payne says even while Ferguson was recovering from a heart attack about six months ago, he always took time to find out how she was doing.

Ferguson's daughter, Lorri Ferguson, who lives in Noe, recalls growing up as a "social worker brat," visiting shut-ins in the South of Market area (back when it was called Skid Row), holding Christmas masses in jails, and hosting strangers at the family table at Thanksgiving.

"There were times when my brothers and I were like, 'Gee, Dad, we'd rather go to the playground today than see more shut-ins. But we went anyway." Now, she's glad she was exposed to her dad's tolerant, generous approach to life.

Once, when Lorri Ferguson's 8-year-old son asked why a homeless person was behaving in a menacing way on the street, she heard her dad explain to his grandson that the man was just terribly sad because he didn't have his family to help him.

"My son instantly understood. Dad explained the tough things in life in a compassionate way."

Ferguson never felt like giving up either. Lorri Ferguson recalls that after his first heart attack last spring, he was hospitalized in an intensive-care unit, hooked up to several machines. Still, he worried about the people he was supposed to see that week and asked his daughter to "take some of my cases."

"My brothers and I didn't know a sixteenth of the people he was helping by the time he got sick," Lorri Ferguson adds.

Then she laughs. "If he knew I was tooting his horn right now, I swear he'd come back and haunt me. He never boasted about what he did."

As news of his death spread in August, friends came forward, expressing their sadness and appreciation for Ferguson's life. On the third floor of 30th Street Senior Center, the seniors and staff posted poems, photos, and remembrances on a glass-covered bulletin board.

Many fingerprints smudged the glass above John Ferguson's smiling face. Everyone wanted to touch him for the last time. He is survived by his three children-- Richard, Tony, and Lorri Ferguson -- his two sisters, and four grandchildren.

The family asks that donations in his memory be made to the charity of your choice.