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Former Islander Middle School band director, Gene Ferguson dies in Chicago

Educator and musician Gene Ferguson conducts band class at Islander Middle School in 2002. - Marta Storwick/Staff Photo
Educator and musician Gene Ferguson conducts band class at Islander Middle School in 2002.
— image credit: Marta Storwick/Staff Photo

To read a copy of Mr. Ferguson's obituary, click here.

Eugene A. Ferguson, a former Islander Middle School band director, musician and mentor to thousands of Island youth, died in his sleep after a prolonged illness on June 28, 2010, in Chicago. He was 71.

Admired by students and parents alike, Ferguson taught at Island schools for 27 years, retiring in June of 2003. He held both graduate and undergraduate degrees in education from Midwest colleges and taught in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa prior to coming west. He was later named to the Washington State Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and was named the City of Mercer Island’s Citizen of the Year for 2001.

But before the accolades, Ferguson faced discrimination. A neighbor called police after seeing Ferguson unloading boxes when he moved to the Island in the late 1970s. Ferguson was African-American. Few, if any, minorities lived on the Island at that time — even fewer taught at Island schools.

Sadly, racial discrimination was nothing new, the educator told the Reporter in an interview in 2002.

Ferguson, born on Nov. 19, 1939, in Oklahoma City, came of age during the racial turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s.

His love of music came from his grandmother, whom he referred to as “Mother Anderson.”

“Our house was full of music and she was always singing,” he said. He remembered the neighborhood where he grew up as a place full of professional black people, where everybody knew everybody else. “If you did anything you weren’t supposed to do, people would be sure to talk to your parents about it,” he laughed. Musically inclined himself, Ferguson joined the St. John Baptist Missionary Church on Kelley Street in his hometown and in his words, “began to get serious about the clarinet in middle school." After he came to teach here, he joined Mt. Zion Baptist Church and sang and later directed choirs there.

Like many he was swept up in the civil rights movement that reached its peak in the 1960s, and even spent a few nights in jail after being arrested during a demonstration. His parents were horrified and told him, “they did not want him hanging around on street corners with ‘those radical folks,’ and being arrested,” he recalled. But the experiences of those times never left him. “I remember the tear gas and the dogs,” he said. “I tell the kids, ‘I was there.’”

He brushed aside the early discomfort with his race on Mercer Island. “All the negative went away after the first few years,” he said, adding it was the support of so many that kept him teaching here.

Ferguson was one of several music educators who were responsible for making the music programs within the Mercer Island School District, a force to be reckoned with. When Ferguson first joined the staff, the music program was in a shambles. There were just 50 students in school music programs and five music teachers had come and gone in five years. “There was little structure and enthusiasm for the program then,” he explained, “and a lot of mistrust.” During his last few years at Islander Middle School, Ferguson had 500 band students in the middle school band classes and fifth-grade classes that met before school hours.

Ferguson was presented with the Citizen of the Year award at Showcase, the school district’s annual two-day event featuring student art and performances. It was fitting venue for such an honor. In 2002, Ferguson wanted everyone to know that he was honored and thrilled by the award. “I will always cherish it.”

Services were held in Chicago on July 8. Burial was to take place later in Oklahoma City.

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