Saturday, August 9, 2008

A great Mississippian

Note: This gentleman had significant impact upon public broadcasting in Mississippi through his oversight role as Chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Grey Ferris has died. I didn’t learn about it until yesterday, when I was surfing the internet and came across his obituary. He was only 62 years old – a victim of cancer – and passed away June 13, 2008, at his home near Vicksburg, Mississippi.
But you need to know more about Grey Ferris. He was one of the most thoughtful and genuinely respectful people I’ve known. I first met Grey after moving to Mississippi in 1993 to head the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (ETV). Grey had just been elected to a four-year term in the Mississippi State Senate from Warren and Issaquena counties.

Our ETV budget was shaped largely by the House and Senate Education Committees. In the House, that was a committee led by the fiery Billy McCoy of Rienzi, one of the hardest-working legislators I’ve ever known. He later was tapped as Speaker of the House – a post he still holds.
In the Senate, the Education Committee was chaired by the soon-to-be Governor Ronnie Musgrove. The Vice-Chairman was a quiet and rather studious Grey Ferris from Vicksburg. During his second term in office, Senator Ferris would serve as Chairman.

Grey’s grandfather, E. B. Ferris, was credited with founding Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Stations, and in 1918 he bought the land east of Vicksburg that became known as “Ferris Farm.” In 1935, his son, Bill, graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson and was soon back on the farm with his wife, Shelby, raising their five children – one of whom was Grey.

After high school in Mississippi and college at Tulane, where he was president of the student body, Grey practiced law for a while, but then returned to the farm. Reportedly, a move to consolidate county school districts rekindled his interest in government and public service. He served six years on the local consolidated school board and then ran for the legislature. It was shortly after that when I met Grey Ferris.

Politics anywhere can be dirty and deceitful, and it’s easy to become disenchanted with government officials. I was fortunate to cross paths with at least two politicians who made me realize that politics need not be bad. That public service is a public trust. And that there are some honest and honorable people who serve. For me, one such person was U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. The other was Mississippi State Senator Grey Ferris.

As a newcomer to Mississippi government – worse, as a “Yankee” – I found there were a few folks who would take advantage of my northern ways. For the most part, however, I found folks agreeable – even helpful – as I stumbled through the legislative process on behalf of public radio and television. No one was more helpful than Grey Ferris. He was adept at resolving conflicts and bringing people together to solve problems. When you visited with Grey, it was as if the rest of the world had been silenced, and he was listening only to you. And he was.

Of course, public broadcasting was a very small part of the over-all education budget, and Grey’s focus was on the big picture – trying to improve the quality of life in Mississippi through public education. He and Senator Hob Bryan (who made even Billy McCoy pale by comparison when considering “colorful” and “fiery” legislators) were among the key folks who pushed through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in the late 1990s. Understandably, it was one of Grey’s proudest moments.

As an aside, I once had the privilege of sitting at a banquet table with Grey and his brother Bill, also a talented individual (and later head of the National Endowment of the Humanities), and their mother, Shelby Flowers Ferris. It was a rare treat watching the two siblings – both achievers – good-naturedly spar verbally under the watchful and loving eye of their mother.

In 1999, Senator Grey Ferris decided to run for lieutenant-governor. A Democrat, he was given a good shot at winning the post. However, when his 18-year-old daughter, Jessica, died after battling an eating disorder and depression, Grey, understandably, didn’t seem to have his heart in the race. He lost his bid for lieutenant-governor and left the Mississippi Senate at the end of his term.
He returned to Ferris Farm, and news accounts attributed to his wife Jann, indicate that he loved being back on the home place -- 6,000 acres of converted cropland running some 1,000 cows. Much of the farm is bottomland hardwood along the Big Black River. It boasts some historic Native American mounds and was also a site of passage by General Grant’s army during the siege of Vicksburg in the Civil War.

And then, a few short years after leaving Jackson to focus on his family and Ferris Farm, cancer struck. His valiant struggle – surrounded by loving family and friends – was poignantly detailed on the website Ferris Farm.

I was surprised to learn that Grey was only 62 when he died. To the many of us who leaned on him for advice and direction – his quiet wisdom and strength of character made him seem older than his years.

Perhaps it’s human nature. Perhaps it’s just the rush of life, but most of us don’t take the time to reach out while we can to communicate with those who’ve significantly touched our lives. In the seven years since leaving Jackson, I’ve often thought about the warmth Karen and I found in Mississippi. So many close personal friends – many of whom we still see occasionally. But too many others – many folks with whom we worked and did business, like Grey Ferris, fade too soon from our lives.

Grey Ferris made Mississippi – and this earth – a better place. God bless Grey and his family.