SALT LAKE CITY — Veteran journalist George J. Ferguson, who spent the majority of his 30-year career at the Deseret News managing the sports department, died Friday, Jan. 26, of causes incident to age. He was 94.
A 1941 graduate of Salt Lake City’s Granite High School, where he excelled on the football and track teams, Ferguson enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Europe during World War II, mustering out at war’s end with the rank of staff sergeant.
He returned to Salt Lake City to finish his studies at the University of Utah. In 1948 he was a member of the first graduating class of the U.’s brand new school of journalism.
After that came a nearly four-decade career as a professional journalist and newspaperman. One of his first stops was purchasing the Summit County Bee newspaper in Coalville for $1,500 in 1951. George and the love of his life, his wife, Martha, who everyone called Muffie, lived in an apartment on Coalville’s Main Street while getting the weekly paper back on its feet.
After stints as editor and reporter at community newspapers in Vernal and Murray, Ferguson joined the Deseret News staff in 1955. In addition to writing and reporting duties, he was soon given direction of the sports department as managing editor.
Known both for his writing and his management skills, Ferguson was named Utah Sportswriter of the Year five times by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association, in addition to being named the Deseret News’ top performer in 1980 when he was presented with the Mark E. Petersen Outstanding Performance Award.
“He knew sports and he knew writing,” said longtime Deseret News outdoor writer Ray Grass, who was among Ferguson’s many hires on the sports desk. “He was a great mentor, especially helpful for young guys just getting started. He helped us, guided us, directed us, showed us what to look for and how to find news. Then he’d edit our stories and show us how to take out things that weren’t necessary. He had a great feel for what the public wanted and what the public was interested in.”
Getting scoops — being first to report the news — was paramount with Ferguson.
“He stressed knowing your contacts, staying in touch with them, creating rapport with them, so if there was any news coming up, you’d get it first,” said Grass. “If he saw something in the (Salt Lake) Tribune we didn’t have, he wanted to know why.”
Dick Rosetta, whose career as a sports writer at the Salt Lake Tribune paralleled Ferguson’s time at the Deseret News, remembered a competitor and a friend.
“George was one of the most respected sports writers during my tenure with the Tribune,” said Rosetta. “We all knew we were competitors, but we were all pretty much buddies as well. George was so well liked by the community and the journalists he worked with.”
In 1977, Ferguson pulled off a major scoop when he hired Linda Hamilton to join the Deseret News sports staff — the first female sports writer ever to work at a daily newspaper in Utah.
“I owe a lot to that man,” said Hamilton, who went on to spend 33 years at the Deseret News. “He definitely wanted a woman on the staff and he made it possible. He was all for it. I remember his laugh. George liked to laugh and he had that infectious laugh. It was a nice thing to have in a newsroom.”
Another Ferguson hire, Brad Rock, saw in Ferguson the consummate sports writer. “He just looked like a sports writer,” said Rock. “To me, he was the WAC, he was the Skyline Conference, he was road trips to Tucson and it was all kind of exotic. He made it all so appealing.”
In addition to his Deseret News work, Ferguson worked as Sports Illustrated’s Western correspondent for 20 years. Many stories about Utah athletes and Utah sporting events made it into the national magazine’s Scorecard and Faces section because of his efforts. One of the most memorable was when a Bingham High School student, Bruce Hardy, was pictured on the magazine’s cover in 1974 and proclaimed “America’s Best Schoolboy Athlete,” due to Ferguson’s lobbying.
In 1970, Sports Illustrated dispatched Ferguson to the Bonneville Salt Flats to report on Gary Gabelich’s attempt at a new land speed record. The story, appearing in the Nov. 9 edition of the magazine, showed off Ferguson’s deft touch at both reporting the news and making it entertaining.
Here’s his description of Gabelich’s pre-run meal:
“For the record, let it be noted that the fastest man in the world fueled up on hot chocolate, cereal and a cinnamon roll, accompanied by the digestion-inducing sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival on the cafe jukebox.”
And his description of the record run:
“The slick tires quickly picked up a coating of damp salt, creating the eerie visual effect that the car was floating, slightly airborne, as it flashed through the mile, stretched out in a long, shimmering silver-blue streak. Behind it, drifting lazily, came puffs of fluffy white vapor. And inside the cockpit, despite the push of some five G's, Gabelich kept his cool. ‘It was smooth, very smooth,’ he said. ‘It seemed to float a little. Nothing wrong, though. Everything was perfect.’ Then, even as the car zinged past the timing trailer, the chutes puffed out and it was all over: 630.388 mph through the kilo and 627.287 mph through the mile. A world record two-way average of 622.407 mph.”
After retiring in 1985, George and Muffie spent their time with family at their cabin in Weber Canyon and danced monthly in the ballroom dance group they helped found, the Hi-Steppers. Muffie died in 2009. She and George were married 62 years. Ferguson remained a loyal and avid Ute fan to the end, requesting that anyone thinking of sending flowers to his funeral consider instead donating to a University of Utah athletic or academic program.
Funeral services are scheduled for Saturday at Jenkins-Soffe Mortuary, 4760 S. State, Murray. There will be a viewing from 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. followed by the service at 1 p.m.