Herrin resident Ron Ferguson loves telling a story about a woman from Mexico and her children who he met upon their very first visit to Marion’s Boyton Street Community Center in Marion, where he serves a chairman of the board of directors.
“The kids were very shy with me, but I guess that’s because I’m pretty imposing. I’m 6 feet 5 inches tall and 300 pounds,” he said with a smile, before continuing the story. “I wasn’t what they are used to, but over time, they’ve started to smile and speak to me very respectfully. I think I’ve won them over. It’s meaningful to me that I’m someone they are comfortable with.”
It’s hard not to be comfortable with Ferguson, 67. He is a sort of gentle giant — polite, kind and caring. Especially caring about the way everyone is treated within a community.
“I’ve always been community minded because my mom always preached to us to be careful with what we do with our stewardship,” he said. “When you are given gifts, you have to be a good steward of those gifts, she would say. That really sank in with me and I’ve always tried to give back more than I’ve received.”
Ferguson learned those lessons well growing up in West Virginia. He learned not only respect, but hard work, too. After serving two years in the Army overseas, Ferguson attended college during the day and helped his stepfather build homes in the evening. To make ends meet, he took a job in one of the state’s many coal mines.
“With a family to feed, you need an income worthy of taking care of them,” he said. "I worked in the coal mines for five years while I was going to school. I went to class at night and worked in the mines during the day.”
Ferguson earned a degree in industrial relations and labor studies, then began a string of jobs in the chemical and coal industries that would take him to eight states in 33 years including at a mine in Southern Illinois, where he met his wife of 31 years, Jackie. After retiring from a position in Pennsylvania, he returned to our region.
“My wife was from here and her mother was still living at the time, so we came back,” he said. “I enjoy it here.”
Similar to what he did in the other places he lived, Ferguson got involved in charitable and civic causes right away.
“In Pennyslvania, I got involved in a lot of community issues things, both through the Masonic lodge and through church. In Madisonville, Kentucky, I was involved in a lot of community activities and issues that we were having with the school board,” he said. “The first was an issue with young ladies of color not being allowed to be cheerleaders. We gathered a group and tried to do something about it, which we did. All of a sudden, I was given the opportunity to be involved in more things. Once you start being involved, you get drawn into more.”
In Southern Illinois, he was asked to serve as a member of the board of the Boyton Street Center.
“The center came into being out of the minority community marching and protesting because there was nothing for them,” he said. “There was a community center on Boulevard, but it was primarily thought of as for the Caucasians. The African-Americans could go there, but it was whether you felt comfortable going there. In 1987, the Boyton Street Community Center was guilt basically for the minority community. Now that is one of the things we are trying to overcome — the perception that it is a minority community center. We’re trying to change it. We have a multicultural community center, but it’s taking time to build that. Sometimes it’s a difficult road to embark on, because you don’t convince people overnight.”
Ferguson said the center focuses on programming for area youth, including an after-school program with tutoring and a summer food program which ensure kids receive healthy meals when school is not in session. All in all, he says he finds the work very rewarding.
“You want to have a sense of contributing to something; not just that you’ve contributed to, but the feeling that you get something back. For me it’s being able to help someone and seeing the kids succeed. Without that, I don’t think many people would be involved.”
He’s also behind a group called Sacred Conversations on Race, a discussion group established following the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The key is that we want people to keep coming and to keep talking because if you keep coming and you keep talking, hopefully, we will find common ground. We want people to come and share their feelings, to open up taboo subjects, talk freely and accept that others have different views. “The whole point is to break down barriers,” he said.
Just like with a smile and a hug shared between a little boy from Mexico and a 6-foot, 5-inch Southern Illinoisan.