Family, Memoirs.

Burt Ferguson Remembered: early life

-Family, W. Burt Ferguson

Burt's parents, Mel and Stella. Attrib: W. Burt Ferguson, Family.

My father-in-law Burt died recently, and before he died, we, Cindy, Scot and I, had some conversations with him about his early life.

William Burton Ferguson was born on January 12, 1925, in Portland, Oregon. His father and mother, Mel and Stella Wood Ferguson, raised Burt and his older brother Melvin on a farm, in straitened circumstances. His father had a bit of the wanderlust, and moved the family many times in his life. They moved in 1929 to South Central Los Angeles, picking cotton on the way; even Burt and his brother Mel helped, at their young age.

Burt spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles. He attended grade school at Trinity Street School, near the L.A. Coliseum, John Muir Junior High School, and John C. Fremont High School part of the way through his junior year.  Burt remembered the Los Angeles of his youth as a very welcome place; mostly sunny, without the contemporary smog, and a great place to grow up.

Burt loved sports, and became particularly enamored of tennis. In the 1930’s, Los Angeles was a hotbed of tennis activity. There were many public courts like Exposition Park where Burt played; each set of public courts had their own competitions among age groups, etc.; they each had a public “ladder”. There were local, regional and national playground championships during this time. Burt played on his junior high and high school teams in Los Angeles, and spent many hours playing at Exposition Park, in competition with many players who went on to win tennis tournaments up to the highest levels. The most prominent was Pancho Gonzales, who was three years younger than Burt. Pancho was someone who haunted the public courts, a “court rat,” carrying a beat-up racket, looking for anyone who would hit with him. Burt and some of his friends were happy to hit with Pancho (the more elite tennis club players usually were not). Burt and Pancho became life-long friends; in later years, when Pancho, who became a great professional player, would arrive in Portland for a tennis exhibition, he and Burt would get together. Pancho described the Exposition Park scene, in his book The Man With a Racket, as a place “where I had learned my tennis. It wasn’t as swanky as the Los Angeles Tennis Club, not quite. It was a public playground with eight hard-surfaced courts, standing in the shadow of the Los Angeles Coliseum. Many Mexicans and Negroes learned the game there. Many others who yearned to play but who couldn’t afford even a small fee, watched enthusiastically from the sidelines. Most of us at Exposition Park had two things in common: very little money and a love of tennis.”

-Family, W. Burt Ferguson

High school senior picture. Attrib: W. Burt Ferguson, Family.

Burt grew to be six foot one inch, and had a terrific tennis service; he had all the service shots, including the big cannonball, the spin, and could place the ball accurately. He even developed the rudiments of a top spin forehand, which was unusual in that time, but is now a standard means of playing; unfortunately, his coach actively discouraged his use of that stroke, which disappointed Burt even years after he had stopped playing competitively. When Burt was 16, his family moved to Medford, Oregon, and there Burt attended Medford High School. He not only played on the tennis team there, but was the Southern Oregon singles champion! A year later, his family moved to Portland, Oregon, and Burt attended Franklin High School, where he was the number one player on their tennis team, and finished 2nd in the PIL league tournament. As a senior, Burt faced, along with all other high school seniors in America in 1943, the military draft for the World War II conflict immediately following his graduation. Like many others, Burt enlisted in the armed forces right after graduation rather than waiting for the draft; Burt enisted, in June of 1943, in the U.S. Navy.