Back-to-school season started with a memorial. My No. 1 fan is dead.

Bill Ferguson of Madison was a textile town’s Prometheus who kindled more than a few campfires between the ears of his students by introducing a worn-out Maine town’s hardscrabble youths to the lyrical loneliness of Yukon poets like Robert Service or the austere beauty of Jack London’s chilling prose. He took language arts as seriously as he did his students’ lives. Himself cut in the figure of a Hemingway, Ferg could fight, fish and fall in love with a relish and rashness that granted him the woodsy word-wielding local legend status that inspired more uncalloused souls like myself the confidence to pick poetry without getting picked on.

Within a mobile home perched on cinderblocks serving as a classroom on the Sanford High School grounds, Ferg taught me how to punch with a pen and love language in my junior and senior years. He encouraged me to write and showed me how to edit with a “kill your darlings” brutality that still makes me squeamish.

When I got my golden ticket to Harvard College, Ferg said not to miss any class about Samuel Johnson. I got the chance to take that advice, enrolling in Jim Engell’s seminar on Johnson and friends. Jim became my friend, and Johnson became a guiding light in my scholarly life – even serving as the basis of a traveling fellowship that allowed me to see the world. It has shaped who I am more than perhaps any other experience, and I wouldn’t have been the man I am today if Ferg hadn’t pointed me toward “The Good Doctor.” I ultimately chose a doctorate of medicine instead of letters, but I kept writing. Ferg followed with enthusiasm, and when I returned home, now and then he would sit with me on the dock, wetting his line and his whistle, and I would catch him up on my latest publications.

My specialty as a physician is in behavioral neurology, and it was devastating when not more than six months ago, I heard Ferg had been diagnosed with dementia. I saw him for the last time at my first book signing on Earth Day this spring. There was a little thinness in his speech, a small vacancy in his demeanor and restlessness more akin to anxiety than the eagerness of this adventurer-now-turned-idler, but he snapped to attention when I read my ghostly ballad of a sunken railroad car buried in the peat bog back home. When I closed my book, he booked it over to the table in order to be the very first in line.

“Sign it?” he asked through his bristly whiskers.


I wrote with a grateful hand and a heavy heart, “To Ferg, my #1 fan.”

The pandemic pushed many teachers out of practice altogether, and politics pitted parent against teacher. The schoolmaster has gone from a trusted community-builder to either a municipal joke at best or an indoctrinating enemy at worst. Yes, our school systems need reform. Yes, there is greed and self-interest as powerful agencies and institutions advance agendas for their leadership.

But these national issues soaring overhead have ballooned out from the hot air of pundit rhetoric, and we’ve lost touch with the solid ground of our neighborhood schools and the teachers that we once called friends.

With music, song, stories and poetry, dozens of former pupils and pals celebrated Bill Ferguson’s impact on our language and our lives, so much so that two rooms in the new school are to be named after him. That’s a step up from the portable I met him in. In composing an elegy for his memorial just as the school year was beginning, I was reminded that in my life, and I’m sure the lives of many others, a good teacher can be the North Star guiding us further into the page and farther into the world.

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