Family, Memoirs, Philosophy.

Burt Ferguson Remembered: words, words, words

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.


My father-in-law Burt died recently, and before he died, Burt and I spent many hours talking about language, history and philosophy, his great passions.

Burt spent more time reading than any other of his pastimes. He was a serious reader, meaning both that he read carefully, and that he read very little fiction or humor, but focused on more sober subjects. One of the most powerful and recurring memories that his children have of him is Burt sitting in his den, reading and taking notes. This habit continued into his last days; Burt spent most of his retirement hours in his den engrossed in reading about his favorite subjects.

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.


Burt loved words, and starting in his early adulthood, actually read through a good portion of the dictionary, carefully noting definitions in one of several “black books.”  This picture shows two of many hundreds of pages that Burt inscribed with detailed notes on the meanings of words.  He was, in a phrase, a life-long auto-didact.  In examining some of the books in his library, it became apparent that Burt heavily annotated many of his books, and the spines of his favorites were well worn; some of his books had heavy rubberbands around them to keep them intact.

Not only did he love words, but he spent much time studying the history and relations of languages, in great detail. During our last conversations, I would ask him about a particular language, and he could remember which other languages from which it was derived, or related to. He delved into the more detailed study of linguistics, but in a more limited fashion, as he had only limited familiarity with any but his native tongue, English.

We spoke at length regarding history, particularly U.S. and British history, with which he was most familiar.  Burt loved Tom Paine as a young man, and read his works carefully. He was well-acquainted with U.S. history going back to its Native American roots, and could describe in detail the various tribes and groups of tribes, and their progression from the Bering land-bridge down to the tip of South America.

The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers [7th Edition], by Robert L. Heilbroner

I would guess that philosophy was his favorite subject.  Burt read a great deal on the history of ideas and the history of philosophy.  Moreover, he read some philosophy as written by its original proponents; I have steadfastly refused to do that myself, except as a means of putting myself to sleep; philosophers have an unfriendly habit of inventing an entirely new vocabulary to describe their model of the world, and thereby reading them in the original requires great patience and study. He and I shared a common interest in the history of ideas, and within that, the history of philosophy, as summarized and explained by clear-eyed writers. He recently gave me one of his favorite books, The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner, which is a particularly skillful history of the great economic thinkers around the Industrial Revolution, and an example of the kind of writing we both admired.

Burt seemed most passionate about the Utopian Socialist philosophers as we talked, those wild-eyed men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were deeply concerned with the poor and the workers as they were being exploited by the early capitalists of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in Britain. We spoke most of Robert Owen, someone I had previously never heard of, who as a rich and successful capitalist of that era, dedicated the remainder of his life to finding the best social system to provide workers with a rich and full life. Like most dreamers, his systems were not very successful, but his passion helped to drive movements within government to focus on the betterment of the poor. Burt described himself to me, as a young man, as a socialist who worried deeply about the welfare of the less privileged. He himself noted the irony of his career as a representative of management in negotiations with unions, but I wonder that his lifelong reading of these philosophers didn’t make him a more compassionate representative of management towards labor.

Burt studied and played chess for many years, and his chess book collection is formidable.  He had many books on wine, also, in support of his study of wine, as a serious wine collector.

Burt read a great deal on his favorite subjects, and continued to do so until the end of his life. It was only in the last few weeks that he became too tired to continue his reading, but our conversations about his favorite subjects continued to the very end of his consciousness.

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