Lincoln County News October 11, 2001
By Lucy L. Martin
"I haven't led a terribly active life," says 87-year-old E. Stuart Fergusson, sitting in his weathered North Whitefield home, a 65-acre tree farm on Clary Lake. A conversation with this eccentric man whose life spans the 20th century reveals, at its core, a quest to connect over great distances despite the constraints of time and place.
Employed by the syndicate Acme Newspictures in 1939, the young photographer "stood on a damn rooftop for four hours" to capture on film a New York landmark - the George Washington bridge. Double exposed, the picture shows streams of cars, in liquid lines of light, returning to the city on Fourth of July night. The New York Herald Tribune published it as a full-width, half page spread.
Today, "that view no longer exists," Fergusson explains. The bridge approaches are completely obscured by apartment buildings.
Many other aspects of the 20th century that Fergusson witnessed and experienced have gone. Some remain only in memory, others are preserved in a portfolio of photographs he took with his Speed Graphic camera. He covered King George and Queen Mary's tour of Canada (some shots were taken from an upper story men's room because Fergusson lacked press I.D.). And he caught candids of FDR, tanned and grinning broadly, as the four-term president arrived in Pensacola on a destroyer.
Once, off Gibraltar in 1940, he stood in the port door of the ocean liner Washington beside photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White. A Life magazine photographer, she worked briefly for Acme, and he was returning from France and Italy, working for the same syndicate (which later became United Press International). The British, who controlled the waters in order to choke oft supplies for Germany, "stopped us of course. The captain in the pilot boat was trying to get clearance (for the liner). I offered to let her make the shot."
Unsure of the focus, she let him step forward. "She was a good photographer but not a terribly good technician. And that was a 'guess focus' he recalls.
Living a life he calls "circumscribed by age," Fergusson is a reflective, personable man with a retentave memory. If the best photographs are the ones that need the least explanation, then Fergusson is in that class. He is sharp, clear and engaging. At the same time, he seems to live in another dimension beyond everyday, visible reality, at a level beyond the physical, deeply engaged with ideas. - His way of thinking about the world led him to a career in electronics.
Throughout his life he has been on the cutting edge of several technologies. When he was offered the job at Acme, which was just starting up its wire photo business, he also applied to New York radio station WOR. The young radio ham operator had his broadcast license and "they were all ready to hire me but the chief engineer told me, 'this is an old, mature industry - don't get involved in it, take the wire photo job, get in on the start of something.' I'm glad I did." In addition to working as an engineer at Acme, Fergusson was also a caption writer and manned the desk as photo editor. Arthur Fellig ("Weejee"), famous for his startling shots of dead gangsters and nightclub dancers, "was my string man", he recalled "We paid him $25 a week for which we got our choice of three pictures."
Radar technology was in its infancy in the late 30s and early 40s. Called up as a Naval Reservist during World War II, Fergusson served as a radar pilot aboard a destroyer and used what he calls "a technique I invented along with about 7,800 other people at the same time! But I'm the first person I know of to use radar and save a destroyer. Off San Francisco, we got lost in the fog. The captain said, I don't aim to lose 385 souls on the first night out. You've, been talking about this radar navigation -get in there and do something about it.' I located us by picking up the Farallon Islands 20 miles out of San Francisco Bay so that made me the fair-haired boy."
A similar incident occurred aboard the destroyer escort Duffy, but in this case Fergusson had to convince the officer on deck that the ship was about to go aground. "I had to take him out on the wing of the bridge and show him a lighthouse we shouldn't have been anywhere
Fergusson said he felt "relief" when the United States entered WWII following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was in the reserves at the time and "I was a strong believer we should have gone into the war against Germany anyway."
He wanted to be at sea, but he was considered too valuable and was assigned to teaching radar school. He was transferred to the Chief of Naval Operations in charge of transmitting radio photographs. Because of this technology, the image of U.S. Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima "became famous because the picture came in the day it happened. I used the same equipment I'd had at Acme. I adapted the signaling system to operate on radio instead of by telephone."
At the end of the war, Fergusson, retiring as a lieutenant, made up a folder of sample photos in case he went back into photography, but he never did.
Instead, he married Sara in 1943, attended Columbia University after the war, got a B.S. and masters degree in physics, which he decided was a better education for electronics than engineering, and moved to Boston. During the 1960s he was a member of the task group that wrote ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange ), for saving computer files in plain text. He traveled throughout the U.S., holding meetings to give a broad segment of the public "a chance to say what they thought should be in the ASCII code." With mathematician Calvin Mooers, who originated the term "information retrieval," Fergusson said, "We got upper and lower case into ASCII. IBM was convinced the world was going to be upper case. We were upper and lower."
He taught seminars in data organization and during his career as a consultant with Arthur D. Little Co., he worked with an automation committee that designed NASDAQ, beginning in 1967. The Securities and Exchange Commission thought the "pink sheet" method was inadequate (pink sheets came out every night on the Stock Exchange and gave the bid and ask prices for individual stocks as of the close of that trading day.) "The SEC demanded that an electronic system be designed so prices would be up-to-the-second, as they are now. Arthur Little got the contract. I wrote into the specs that the keyboard be separate from the display, and by golly, a friend of mine designed it that way. But I think I was the first to propose it," Fergusson said.
In 1971, there was a recession and reversals in the computer industry pushed Fergusson out of business. In declining health, he and Sara sold their sprawling house in Brookline. Mass., and returned with their teenage children George and Jean to North Whitefield.
He had summered in the lakeside home as a boy, ever since his father, a voice teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music, and his mother bought the old Eddie Choate place in the early 1920s. The family arrived yearly by the narrow gauge train from Wiscasset. During those summers he and his neighbors John, Paul and Ruth MacDonald published a six-page typewritten newspaper they called the Clary Lake Clarion.
"I talked my father into talking Paul into going to high school," Fergusson remembers. Paul MacDonald, now 89, went on to become a Maine justice.
In his retirement years, Fergusson represented AARP, "the most vocal consumer group" he said, before the Public Utilities Commission". Fergusson chuckles over the "juris doctor" award the organization gave him for being "a student of approved ability and scholarship." He has also served on the board of legal services for the elderly.
In addition, the family property. "managed by a good forester," says Stuart, was named the number one operating tree farm for the southern part of Maine one year, and it was the runner up tree farm of the year two years ago.
Too frail now to leave the house, Fergusson is
comfortably at home in his country kitchen, a timeless oasis in a world
swirling with change. Though blind in one eye, he reads a lot and sits
daily at his computer in the corner. "We very much love this
house," he says, pointing out the soft pine floors, the pressed
tin walls and ceiling, the simple rustic furniture, all just as they
were 80 years ago.