A Career as a Cultural Norm

I remember that night vividly.

Just after 7 p.m., Tuesday, November 8, 1994. Kansas Secretary of State Bill Graves of Salina was sneaking in a few bites of dinner, a slice of pepperoni pizza, as he prepared to settle in for an evening of fulfilling his statutory responsibility, the orderly management of Kansas elections.

The polls had been closed for only a few minutes when into his tiny second-floor Statehouse office ambled Lew Ferguson, short-sleeved button down, loosened necktie, horn-rimmed glasses. A veteran wire service reporter, Lew bore an Oklahoma twang and a piece of wire copy declaring Graves the victor in the race for Kansas Governor.

At that exact same moment, I was a few blocks south on Topeka Boulevard, in a noisy Kansas Expocentre ballroom, elbow deep in a media horde, cameras and microphones thrust in my general direction. On a brick-sized cell phone with one of Lew’s colleagues back at the Statehouse, I was attempting to fulfill my employment responsibility as the Graves campaign media flak, to confirm what the candidate, now Governor-elect, had just learned.

“At that moment, if Lew Ferguson said I was the next Governor, I knew it was true,” Graves recalled recently. “He wouldn’t have printed it, if it wasn’t fact.”  

Lew Ferguson died late last month at 83, in his home state of Oklahoma.

As the Statehouse Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, a wire service to which nearly every newspaper, radio and television station in Kansas subscribed, Lew was the most important reporter in my world, which would come to revolve around the care and feeding of his brethren statewide, seeking stories, scoops and the inside dope.

 After the pepperoni interruption, Ferguson signed his story for the Governor-elect. It remains among Graves' most cherished keepsakes.

After the pepperoni interruption, Ferguson signed his story for the Governor-elect. It remains among Graves' most cherished keepsakes.

My m.o. as press secretary emanated from the top. Graves had an innate understanding of how to successfully communicate, and had built a relationship with Lew long before the election night pepperoni interruption. My job was simple. Don’t screw it up.

Other reporters would have to settle for a Matson quote or wait until the Governor’s Friday news conference, but not Lew.          

“Be at the bottom of the stairs at 5:30. Walk with him to the Crown Vic.”

Before I became the Governor’s spokesperson, I had been one of the media horde, covering government and politics for a Topeka television station and statewide radio network. In those halcyon days before the Internet blurred the line between print and electronic media, those of us with cameras and cassette tape recorders were often viewed with disdain by our elders with reporters’ notebooks and pencils. Dismissed as pretty boys and girls, generally not taken seriously.

Not Lew. He tended to judge you, not by the medium in which you communicated, but by your candlepower.

Four years later, Graves sought re-election and with Fred Phelps the only declared Democratic opponent, then-Kansas House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer of Wichita selflessly sacrificed his leadership position and legislative seat to be his party’s standard bearer and take on the popular sitting incumbent. A friend returned to Topeka from Washington to manage Sawyer’s campaign. She recalled giving the exclusive to Lew the evening before they announced.

“He called us both nuts, but said before he left that we were doing the right thing,” she recalled. “That meant a lot coming from Lew.”  

Ferguson retired in 1999 and then the Governor (when you serve at that level, they’ll always be, “the Governor”) did something extraordinary. He appointed him to the Kansas Board of Regents, where Graves recalled, Lew’s journalistic instincts and institutional knowledge would prove invaluable in one of the most prized gubernatorial appointments.

He was the kind of journalist who would have looked perfectly comfortable wearing a fedora with a press card stuck in the hatband, hunched over a typewriter, hammering out the latest truth. To describe him as a throwback, though, does a disservice to those currently toiling in the profession. Lew cared deeply about what all journalists care deeply about. The story. Truth and fairness.

His life and professional career can be held up as an example of an American cultural norm. One that occasionally needs defending out loud. We take the First Amendment for granted at our own peril. It’s unfortunate that Lew Ferguson’s integrity and humanity stands in such sharp contrast to those today who would diminish the journalist’s role in American society. The concept of “fake news” starts and ends somewhere deep within the psyches of the closed-minded.

There are more vehicles delivering more journalism today than in Lew’s era, which makes it even more important for those of us who consume news, to do what we’ve always done. Find and stick with journalists we trust.  

As a fellow journalist and later as a gatekeeper, I trusted Lew Ferguson. He earned that trust the way we all earn another’s trust – through words and deeds. There’s no mystery surrounding what made Lew such a good journalist. It started and ended with the fact that he was a good human being.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com