In 1967, Clarence Ferguson was a 19-year-old son of a Georgia farmer and had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
“I grew up in this little town called Edison,” Ferguson said. “I always called it a one-horse town. It didn’t have any stop lights… Life wasn’t bad there, but the wages were low. I knew back then I didn’t want to be a farmer.”
And so one day, when he heard a relatively new federal organization calling itself Job Corps was recruiting young men, he decided to take a chance to uproot everything he knew and move to the wilds of Montana.
Thousands of students who have followed in his footsteps since then have benefited from that decision.
Earlier this week, the young men and women now enrolled at Trapper Creek Job Corps gathered in the gym to see the man they call Fergie be honored for the 45 years that he has been part of that organization both as student and staff.
On the heels of that celebration came another when Ferguson was one of 12 in the nation named as a recipient for the 2018 Unsung Hero Awards selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organization of Professional Employees.
“Fergie exemplifies what we teach here in the context of giving back to others and public service,” said Trapper Creek Job Corps Center Director Jesse Casterson. “His endurance is commendable and compassion insurmountable.”
The Job Corps program, founded in 1964 to provide free academic and career training for low-income youth ages 16 to 24, had only been in existence for about 18 months when Ferguson signed up.
“It was culture shock for me when I came across the country to come here,” Ferguson said. “At that time, it was all guys. All the buildings were painted red. The government must have got a discount on red paint.”
Back then, Ferguson didn’t have a plan on what he was going to study when he arrived.
“It was just a new adventure, so to speak,” he said.
That adventure began as soon as he arrived in February with his first experience with snow.
“There was lots of snow, but I got used to it,” he said. “I adapted.”
He did more than adapt. Ferguson thrived in his new environment. When he graduated from the academic program at Trapper Creek, one of the staff convinced him that he needed to go on to college. In 1969, he enrolled at Western Montana College in Dillon, where he would earn a degree in education.
He worked on a sheep ranch while he went to school and for the U.S. Forest Service at the Powell Ranger Station in Idaho during the summers as a smoke chaser, fire guard, tree planter and timber cruiser.
When Ferguson decided he wanted to enter the master’s degree program at the University of Montana, he found himself working weekends back at Trapper Creek Job Corps. By 1978, he was working full time there.
He couldn’t have guessed back then that he would never leave.
“The love of this job has been what’s kept me here,” he said. “I love the challenge of working with all sorts of different personalities… I get to see them mature quite a bit in the time they’re here. Their parents notice the positive change when they go back home. They want to stay here and stick it out.”
In the Bitterroot Valley, Ferguson is the familiar face who shepherds groups of Trapper Creek students when they perform variety shows at local nursing homes and Christmas carols at community events and businesses from Darby to Missoula during the holiday season.
Through his job as recreation supervisor, Ferguson offers students opportunities to experience Montana with fishing lessons, river tubing in the summer and snow skiing in the winter. He uses his recreation budget to fund an arts room where student learn to paint, make leather items and discover the world of pottery. Beyond that, he’s held poetry recitals, fashion shows, spelling bees and dances.
In his nomination letter for Unsung Hero, Trapper Creek Job Corps support services supervisor Brian Shay said students have enjoyed recreational experiences that would never have come their way without Ferguson.
“He is fair, firm and consistent in his attitude and ethics toward all students and is routinely recognized by students for his huge smile and compassion,” Shay wrote.
Casterson said it’s hard to measure the impact Ferguson’s decades of service have made in the world.
“Our goal here is to reach beyond the individual to impact a community,” Casterson said. “If we can successfully impact one student’s life, the ripple effects on the larger community are immense. There’s no question that will impact their parent’s lives, their own children and their community.”
Often students come to Trapper Creek without knowing what it is like to know that someone values them as a person. They find that when they cross paths with Ferguson.
“There’s not a student here who doesn’t know that Clarence values them,” Casterson said. “Clarence is just a huge loving person who cares about the people who are here.”
Danny Atkinson knows that’s true. Ferguson was his mentor when he went through the program almost 20 years ago. The Trapper Creek Job Corps graduate now serves as a natural resources instructor at the center.
“It gives me goosebumps when I think about what he’s been able to accomplish in his career here,” Atkinson said. “Here’s this Job Corps kid who went on to do this incredible thing with his life.
"He’s been able to give back so much and make a difference in so many people’s lives. He’s an inspiration to me.”