Former telecommunication exec taught values

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

As he rose through the ranks in the telecommunication industry, eventually becoming CEO of the company that would become Verizon, William Ferguson remained humble and connected to his Michigan roots.

Among his roles in Michigan were executive vice president of Michigan Bell and acting president of Albion College.

“You wouldn’t know he was a mover and a shaker,” said his daughter, Ellen Keleman. “I think people really felt that when he was present with them he was present with them.”

Mr. Ferguson died Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, in Jupiter, Florida. He was 84.

Born on Oct. 26, 1930, in Detroit to a Scottish immigrant and a Missouri farm girl, Mr. Ferguson spent his early childhood in Akron, Ohio, before moving to Trenton. In 1948, he graduated from Trenton High School with his future wife, Joyce Soby.

Mr. Ferguson worked the midnight shift in the summer at the Firestone factory in Wyandotte to pay tuition for Albion College. He graduated in June 1952 with a bachelor degree in math and a secondary teaching certificate. That same year he married, joined Michigan Bell as a management trainee and then was drafted into the United States Army.

While stationed as a Corporal in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, Mr. Ferguson taught electronics at the Signal Corps School. He returned to Michigan Bell in 1954 and served in management until becoming a company officer in 1971.

His move up the corporate ladder led to transfers back and forth between Trenton, Grand Rapids and Grosse Ile, Keleman said. He served on the Trenton School Board in early 1960s and the Grosse Ile School Board in the 1970s.

In 1978, Mr. Ferguson became executive vice president and COO of Michigan Bell. As the Bell System broke up, he transferred to New York in 1983 to become the president and CEO of New York Telephone. In 1987, he became vice chairman and eventually chairman and CEO of NYNEX, which would later become Verizon. He retired in 1995.

Mr. Ferguson was a mentor to many during his career, said longtime friend and colleague Frank Zimmerman, who met Ferguson in 1955 when they worked as managers in the traffic department of Michigan Bell.

“He was obviously very intelligent, very perceptive,” Zimmerman said. “He was very creative and innovative and well liked. He helped a number of people, including myself, with their careers. He helped in that he mentored if thought they had potential.”

Keleman said her father took care of the people around him.

“He would read people’s personalities,” she said. “He never make you feel bad about your weaknesses. He would work quietly with you. I think that’s what made him a great manager. He was able to move the chess pieces in the right place so he could get the best out of the team.”

Keleman said her father gave back to his alma mater serving as a member of the Albion College Board of Trustees, chair, acting president and visiting professor. He received an honorary doctorate from the college in 1996. He and his wife established scholarships and endowments, one of which was the Ferguson Student, Technology and Administrative Services Building dedicated in 2002.

“He never let go of Albion,” Keleman said. “He believed in giving back.”

Mr. Ferguson served on a number of corporate boards including Viacom, General RE and Best Foods and as vice chairman of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Chamber of Commerce.

Among his hobbies was golf, said Keleman, adding he was modest about his three handicap.

He was the rock of the family.

“He left us with everything we needed to be OK,” Keleman said. “Not from being rich or famous, whatever that is. He taught me values.”

Mr. Ferguson is survived by his wife of 63 years, Joyce Ferguson; three daughters, Laura Ferguson, Ellen (Bob) Keleman and Joanne (Shep) Gerrish; seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

A memorial is scheduled for 11 a.m. Nov. 16 at First United Methodist Church of Jupiter-Tequesta, 815 East Indiantown Road, Jupiter, FL 33477. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Albion College, Institutional Advancement Office, 611 E. Porter St., Albion, Michigan 49224.

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