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'No doubt ... he was for Texarkana'

'No doubt ... he was for Texarkana'

Bobby Ferguson, longtime Arkansas-side mayor, remembered for his passion, care for the community

February 17th, 2017 by Christy Busby in Texarkana News
Bobby Ferguson, former Arkansas-side mayor

Bobby Ferguson, former Arkansas-side mayor

Photo by Submitted photo

In his trademark "little red hat" or sports coats, Bobby Ferguson had a decades-long passion and drive to make Texarkana, Ark., a better place to live and work.

Ferguson died Tuesday. He was 84.

Ferguson served on the city board from 1964 to 1992, 18 of those years as mayor.

But he was well known in the state and nation's capitols, fostering connections that over time parlayed into an estimated $73 million in grant funding for his beloved Texarkana, Ark., said Jerry Shipp, Ferguson's longtime friend and business partner.

"Bobby was a wheeler dealer There was no doubt about it, he was for Texarkana," he said.

He was was on first-name basis with people in Washington, D.C., and they would say 'Hey Mayor, you're back.' Wherever he went, he left an impression and people knew him by sight," Shipp said.

For more formal events, his sports coats, particularly the ones in the red family, were a favorite to display his Razorback pride. But for everyday wear, Ferguson opted for his red hat and guayabera shirts with four patch pockets. He also distributed clickers, whistles and paper clips with catchy slogans touting his candidacy.

Shipp met Ferguson in high school, and the two were were business partners in Porky's Food Service for 32 years. Shipp also did a 20-year stint on the Miller County Quorum Court.

"Bobby was just a colorful person. You may not like him, but you liked being around him Bobby and I were part of the original Steakhouse Gang. Back then, that was the place," Shipp said. Cattleman's Steak House was owned then by Roy Oliver.

According to local political lore, the city's fate was decided in the privacy of a back room of the storied State Line Avenue establishment.

Bobby Ferguson liked to distribute political souvenirs, like these clickers that say, "Let's Get Our City 'Clicking.'"

Bobby Ferguson liked to distribute political souvenirs, like...

Photo by Evan Lewis /Texarkana Gazette.

The Steakhouse Gang had the power, the stroke, the votes and the connections to state and national politicians.

From time to time, politicians such as Bill Clinton reportedly dropped by when in town.

Ferguson was a tireless ambassador and servant of Texarkana, Shipp tells.

"During Chamber of Commerce and legislative days, Bobby and I would cook ribs and chili and take it up to Little Rock and serve it. He was so well-known throughout Arkansas," he said.

Ferguson even put some of the state politicians in a serving role, literally, while they were in Texarkana.

"Bobby and I used to host political events and when (Bill) Clinton was governor, we had served chicken at the (Four States) Fairgrounds. Around 1,700 people came and ate. We had all politicians, Beryl Anthony, David Pryor and they had to serve the food. It gave them the chance to directly connect with the voters," he said.

Ferguson was masterful at the art of compromise, Shipp said.

Ferguson is remembered as the political architect of the Bi-State Justice Building which, upon its opening in the mid-1980s, housed law enforcement offices, jail space, courtrooms for the two Texarkanas and Bowie and Miller counties.

Obtaining funding for a major overhaul of a local wastewater treatment plant and working deals so Texarkana could receive water from Millwood Lake are also among Ferguson's major accomplishments, Shipp said.

Ferguson is credited with appointing the first black member of the city board, the Rev. Londell Williams.

"He was smart, he was level-headed, he had a sense of understanding, the know how of getting along with people. He had personality and Ferguson is class personified. All this goes beyond reproach," Williams said.

The two met when Ferguson would visit Williams' father at the family's home in the Iron Mountain addition.

"We had a lot of fun. Ferguson would keep us in stitches. He was a nice fellow to be around," Williams said.

Ferguson had a well-known aversion to flying.

"It began when Bobby was on a plane circling Texarkana and it couldn't land. Bobby never flew no more," Williams said.

Williams also shared Ferguson's dislike of flying.

"I told him, "It may not be my time, it may not be your time, but it may be the pilot's time,'" Williams said.

The two men also have something else in common.

"Ferguson is the longest serving city board member after me," said Williams, who served 37 years on the city board and even a stint as mayor.

Hubert Easley spent about 12 years on the city board while Ferguson was mayor, and he made several road trips to Little Rock and Washington, D.C. with him.

"Many times we would borrow a police car to make the trips in. We had some good things to happen from that, driving a car with an antenna and sometimes it was loaded with guns we didn't know anything about, but it all worked out for Texarkana. Bobby was always looking for some way to get a project going that would benefit Texarkana. That was his goal," he said.

"If we were on a trip and if we had some schedule to meet, we would drive at night sometimes and right now I can see why that was not a good idea, but we were always fortunate and never had a collision," he said.

Easley recalls Ferguson tirelessly advocating for an Arkansas Boulevard overpass traversing what is now Interstate 49. Before the overpass, the two roads intersected and several fatal accidents occurred there.

"He did get a lot of things done. He nearly always had a major project he was working on whether it was the sewer system, water system, streets or bridges. He worked for the people," Easley said.

"He was a great mayor, maybe the best mayor Texarkana, Ark., ever had. Bobby had ways of finding out where the money was and then he knew how to get it. That's not to say you wouldn't have disagreements sometimes, but it always worked out for the best," Easley said.

Easley later became Miller County judge, and the experience he had serving with Ferguson was great for his new role.

Ermer Pondexter, who worked for the city for 27 years, remembers Ferguson helping her get the job.

"From that day forward, it seems as though upward mobility was a thing for me in as much as I was able to do some things I would not have been able to do because they ordinarily would have been a no-no," she said.

"Bobby was a man who regardless of race, creed or color felt all people deserved a chance. He never said that, but in my heart I felt that coming from Bobby," Pondexter said.

Pondexter headed up the Retired Senior Volunteer Program for most of her time at the city. The program mobilized retirees into volunteers throughout a nine-county area. The local program became the third highest performing in the state.

"That's because I had the backing of Mayor Bobby Ferguson. I knew he wanted the best for the program. He was backing me in the endeavors I was trying to undertake," she said.

He was also integral in finding the space and the funds for a boot camp targeting children who were struggling academically.

"We served 62 kids every summer for three years. All but two of those students passed the grade level the following year. All the people (serving) were military retirees and active military person. The children went through the procedures the military used," Pondexter said.

"Bobby was an instrument in this community and was not there just to be seen. He took action instead of just talking like some people. He, unlike some of the others, followed behind his commitment. He made action on it," she said. "He was a man of principality, a man of his word, a man of wisdom and he saw things in the future that would be of benefit to Texarkana, Arkansas and surrounding areas."

Upon leaving the mayor's office, Ferguson was never far from politics or public service.

He served on the Texarkana, Ark., School District board for eight months in an appointed position in the mid-1990s. In 2005, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed Ferguson as Miller County District 3 Justice of the Peace for a two-year term after the death of Dan Fulce.

In 2006, Ferguson made an unsuccessful bid for the mayor's seat. He also helped in the campaigns of several city politicos.

Just months before his death, Ferguson was working on a project for the Genoa Water District. He was also serving on the Arkansas Motor Vehicle Commission.

Travis Dowd, a longtime friend of Ferguson's and a former state representative, said Ferguson was one of a kind.

"He was something else. He was a little banty rooster, I tell ya. He would constantly think about the city. He could never get it out of his system. He would call me and say, 'I think I ought to do this and I ought to do that.' We talked on the phone every day He would call me in the mornings and we would just visit," Dowd said.

"I think there were several city officials who would still call him about finding some records and he knew where they were. He kept his mind on the city," Dowd said.

Though Ferguson had a vivacious personality, he was modest in other ways, Shipp said.

"Bobby was never one to show out. He didn't wear fancy clothes, he didn't drive a fancy car and he didn't live in a fancy house. He was a common man doing common things. His political career was extremely stout. He had many connections through the country. Most people knew him as Mayor or Fergy," Shipp said.

"If you saw Bobby around town, you'd see him in that little red hat and those shirts with two pockets up top and two below. He had something in every damned pocket," he said. "He wore out those notepads with the wire rings. He'd take notes, dabbing the pen to his tongue. You'd ask him something and he'd pull out a notebook, going through page after page, but he'd find the information."

Ferguson was also known for what he handed out: rulers, clickers, whistles and paper clips with catchy slogans such as "Keep our city clicking. Bobby Ferguson Mayor."

"I'm sure gonna miss him and the red hats and clickers," Dowd said.

"I told him once, 'Hell, Bobby, let me buy you a new red hat.' He said, 'No, this is the one I want.'"

"He always had that damned little old clicker when he would go to Washington, D.C. or Little Rock. We'd go into the governor's office and the first thing he would do is click it," Dowd said.

Ferguson always had a way of keeping the city clicking.

"He is going out in style in a red casket and his red hat," Shipp said.

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