Bill Ferguson, 1948-2013

Longtime Hilton Head Island Councilman Bill Ferguson dies

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comAugust 23, 2013 

Bill Ferguson

PROVIDED PHOTOGRAPH

Former Hilton Head Island Town Councilman Bill Ferguson died Friday evening in his home from "complications resulting from previous health issues," according his wife, Linda Ferguson. He was 65.

Linda Ferguson said her husband was initially admitted to Hilton Head Hospital before being transferred to the VA medical center in Charleston. Doctors and nurses there "worked tirelessly to do all they could for him," she said.

He was released from the VA on Tuesday and received in-home hospice care, she said. He was surrounded by family when he died, she said.

The Vietnam veteran said in 2012 he was taking medication for several illnesses, including diabetes and exposure to Agent Orange during his military service. He sought treatment and later said his health had improved.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

"He was a fighter and an activist," Linda Ferguson said Friday night. "He loved this island. He wanted to fight for the rights of everybody on this island, not just African Americans, but anyone who needed help and assistance.

"If he saw somebody being wronged, he would do anything he could to right that wrong. He would jump right in."

FILLING A VOID

Ferguson, a Hilton Head native, represented Ward 1 on Town Council from 1993 to 2012. He also ran for mayor in 2010.

Before losing the election to Marc Grant last year, he was council's longest-serving member and its only minority.

He took that role seriously, those who knew him said.

"I think he tried his best to be there to fill a void -- a lack of representation of native islanders in the town," said community activist, fellow native islander and longtime resident Thomas C. Barnwell Jr.

Ward 1 includes the Chaplin community and neighborhoods centered around Squire Pope, Gumtree, Spanish Wells and Marshland roads, as well as Mathews Drive.

Ferguson was sometimes a controversial figure on council.

On several occasions, he walked out of meetings, alleging racism by other members. In 2011, he accosted a fellow council member, but later apologized for the incident, saying a mix-up in his medications affected his health and behavior.

Despite such incidents, he had strong backing in his ward, running unopposed from 2003 until 2012.

"He could be angry and blustery, but in the end there was always a big smile," town manager Steve Riley said late Friday. "I'll always remember that big smile of his."

It was a smile often reciprocated by Mayor Drew Laughlin, who enjoyed Ferguson's dry sense of humor.

"It's sad news. It's another loss of someone who contributed a lot to this community," Laughlin said, referring to the Aug. 11 death of Ben Racusin, the town's first mayor.

Laughlin called Ferguson an "intelligent, articulate and independent voice who spoke his mind and represented the folks who put him on council very well."

A LOVE OF THE ISLAND

Ferguson successfully fought to get water and sewer service for his ward and to pave dirt roads.

He opposed expansion of the Hilton Head Island Airport because of the impact on a nearby native-island church and communities.

Some credited him with protecting native islanders' property rights and drawing needed attention to the northern area of the island, where some felt they had long been ignored.

He helped usher in changes to town zoning, land management laws and the permitting process to make it easier for native islanders and other residents to develop their property.

In 2003, on the 20th anniversary of the town's incorporation, Ferguson and other native islanders questioned whether Hilton Head was meeting the needs of all its citizens.

"He wanted people to be able to live and enjoy life and not struggle," his wife said. "He wanted to help people develop their own businesses and create jobs so young people who left the island had something they could come back to, to sustain their livelihood."

That love of the island was part of his life from the beginning.

Ferguson was born and reared on Hilton Head and lived much of his life there.

He attended the University of South Carolina Beaufort, San Francisco State University and San Jose City College.

He established the Island Gardener landscaping company and Ferguson Community Development.

"You always knew what he thought and where he stood, and he had no purpose in mind other than to make (Hilton Head) a better place to be," Laughlin said.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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