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Taking the road less traveled – by way of Duke

Voices: Duke Community Contemplations
John R. Ferguson ’72

It was the belief of Benjamin Franklin that health, wealth and wisdom grow out of a good sleep schedule. The evidence, however, says that a college education is a better bet.  Like many of my fellow alumni, I can say that I have benefited greatly from my Duke education. Unlike them, I also can say that I owe my existence to Duke – twice over.  Let me explain.

My mother grew up in Durham. In her senior year of high school, she was rushed to Duke Hospital and diagnosed with a ruptured appendix. The Duke doctors saved her.

Although her lengthy hospitalization prevented her graduation, she was admitted to Duke without a high school diploma.  This became important because it was at Duke that she met the man who would become her husband and my father.  They were married in Duke Chapel.

Duke’s impact on my life did not end there, because my children also owe their existence to Duke.  I grew up in a small town in South Carolina, but I yearned to know more about the world. I decided that I would never be able to understand the world if I couldn’t understand the Soviet Union and that I needed to understand Russian to make that happen.

It is characteristic of crossroads that you often don’t recognize them when they present themselves. Thus it was with my decision to take Russian at Duke. I was by no means the leading light of my Russian classes, but I learned to speak it. 

A few years after graduation, I contacted a friend from Duke and proposed a camping trip in Eastern Europe. We arrived in Prague during a cold, wet and dreary period.  Trudging around in the rain for the better part of a day to find hostel vacancies left me with a bad cold and a diminished desire to see more of Prague. As a result, we made the fateful decision to leave Prague a day early.

I decided that I would never be able to understand the world if I couldn’t understand the Soviet Union and that I needed to understand Russian to make that happen.

The train was full, and it took some hunting before I found a seat available in a compartment inhabited by a group of drunk Polish workers and a besieged Polish girl. I assisted her with fending off the workers, and we struck up a conversation.  She didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Polish, so Russian was our common language. But because Russians were occupying her country at the time, she was reluctant to be talking with someone who sounded Russian to her. It was only after I agreed to show her my passport that she believed I was an American and consented to a conversation. I met her family when we arrived later in Warsaw. There followed a friendly correspondence of several years and then an invitation for her to come visit. We wound up deciding that we were more than just friends, and I proposed (in Russian!). Had I not studied Russian at Duke, we would have merely smiled greetings on that train and never seen each other again, and our children would not exist. By such small forks in the road are our lives determined.  Taking the road less traveled can indeed make all the difference, and Duke made that possible for me.

John R. Ferguson ’72 is a retired lawyer and the author of “Criminal Offenses in South Carolina.”

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