David L. Ferguson.

David L. Ferguson. Credit: Stony Brook University

David L. Ferguson was the first African American valedictorian of his high school, in 1967. But this was only the beginning of a life's worth of carving the path for thousands of underrepresented ethnically and economically disadvantaged students.

Ferguson discovered his love of education on his third day of school — a love he graciously carried throughout his life, applying it to decades of teaching, pioneering programs and directing initiatives for marginalized communities at Stony Brook University and beyond. 

One of his many gifts was opening doors for the success of minority students passionate about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, who embodied his younger self, said his older sister, Kathern Ferguson Harris of Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

Ferguson, of Port Jefferson, died apparently of a heart attack on July 12, Harris said. He was 69.

The 11th of 12 siblings, Ferguson was born Aug. 19, 1949, in Pascola, Missouri, to Dora and Otto Ferguson. He and his siblings, most of whom helped tend their father’s farm, got along well, spending their childhood lining up to take turns riding a bike that about eight of them shared, and piling into the family car to attend ballgames together at the local high school gym.

Two things were fundamental to Ferguson’s parents: righteousness and the power of education.

“He grew up in a household that valued the way you treat people, and that’s probably a great deal of who he was, always respecting people,” Harris said. “My parents taught that as much as they taught you how to read or how to write or how to add or subtract.”

They pushed the importance of compassion among their children so much that on Ferguson’s first day of school, he couldn’t possibly grasp how anybody could lack it.

After finding a handkerchief on the playground that day, Ferguson took it to the teacher, knowing it belonged to somebody else, only for her to instruct him to “go and put it in the trash,” Harris said. Ferguson couldn't believe it. He refused to get back on the school bus, his teacher’s lack of empathy in mind, until the third day of classes.

“We say he loved school from day three,” she said.

Ferguson went on to become the first African American valedictorian of Neelyville High School in Neelyville, Missouri, before earning his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics at Southeast Missouri State University. He then attended UCLA on a fellowship for his master’s in mathematics, and UC Berkeley for a doctorate in mathematics and science education.

Lasting impressions on LI

Ferguson joined Stony Brook University in 1981 as the first African American assistant professor in the Department of Technology and Society, for which he later became associate professor and then the first African American chair.

During his time at the university, he launched the Center for Excellence in Learning and Technology, received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, with over 100 faculty members and over 500 graduate teaching assistants participating in its activities each year, became a SUNY distinguished service professor and served as associate provost for diversity and inclusion.

Ferguson also chaired the National Leadership Fellows Board for previously NSF-funded Science Education for New Civic Engagement and Responsibility (SENCER), after being one of its founding members. On Thursday, he will be the posthumous recipient of the William E. Bennett Award for Extraordinary Contributions to Citizen Science. It is SENCER's highest award, executive director Eliza Reilly said.

Ferguson even took his talents internationally, teaching classes and advising doctoral students at SUNY Korea, after helping establish its presence. Most recently, he served as a provost’s scholar in leadership and transformation in diversity.

“He was the sun and he had all these different planets orbiting around him,” said Paul Siegel, a professor who worked in Ferguson’s department, likening the rest of the department’s members to planets that maintained their separate orbits around Ferguson’s guidance. “He was the one giving us the light.” 

Nina Maung-Gaona, a former colleague, doctoral student and protégé of Ferguson’s, echoed Siegel's thoughts, explaining that no matter who you were or where you were from, Ferguson’s spirit inspired a sense of trust and respect.

“His aura was not of a color in this world,” she said.

Ferguson developed and oversaw dozens of STEM programs for underrepresented minority students starting at the high school level, receiving millions of dollars in federal and state funds for grants he worked to secure. Perhaps the largest he brought to Stony Brook University, funded by the National Science Foundation, was the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, said Fotis Sotiropoulos, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Without it, the university would not be able to compete for other NSF grants in STEM education.

Sotiropoulos saw Ferguson as his role model. 

"He was the heart and soul of everything we did in STEM education," Sotiropoulos said. "He lived his entire life — all his career, all his passion — to engage students from underrepresented groups, to provide opportunities, to do well in STEM, grow, get degrees, get Ph.Ds, become faculty, be successful and so on." 

Each year since 2016, Sotiropoulos delivers his "State of the College" address, during which an awards ceremony for the "Dean's Millionaire Club" recognizes faculty who secured, as the lead principal investigator, more than $1 million in externally-sponsored grants. Ferguson was the only one to receive the award for three consecutive years. He will receive it again this year, posthumously, Sotiropoulos said, adding that because of him, the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences also was recently ranked among the top 15 colleges in the nation for the quality of its work in STEM and vision for diversity in STEM education.

Ferguson founded STEM Smart and the Center for Inclusive Education at Stony Brook University — academic centers that house various diversity and outreach programs to serve middle school students through postdoctoral trainees in preparation for faculty careers.

Maung-Gaona said that all of Ferguson's programs combined have provided academic enrichment and professional development to upward of 10,000 students over the last three decades.

President's Award and more

In 1997, Ferguson was one of 10 people to receive the President's Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, from the White House. He is one of the two Stony Brook University professors to ever earn this distinction, and he donated his prize money to student scholarships. 

Just last January, he was honored by the Suffolk County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission for his life’s work. 

Despite his dedication to schooling, Ferguson’s humility, generosity and abiding friendliness never dimmed, family, students and colleagues said.

“He never had an air of superiority, no matter what he achieved,” his nephew Willie J. Robinson Jr. of Melbourne, Australia, said. “Even though he was a busy person, when you were in a conversation with him, it was like he had all the time in the world.”

Ferguson is survived by his three older brothers, Isaac, Otto and John; two older sisters, Kathern and Thelma, and younger sister, Patricia.  

Stony Brook University services are planned for early fall. A scholarship, created in Ferguson's honor, will be awarded to a Stony Brook University STEM student from an underrepresented demographic.

“Everybody was a human being and everybody was important and he didn’t have to tell you that — you knew when you talked to him,” Harris said. “ ... He was real and he made you feel like everything he said, he meant.”

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