When I was blogging regularly here, one of my main themes was discussing the post-9/11 world and the fight against Islamic extremism.
There’s a reason for that. Twenty years ago today, I lost a very good friend in the September 11 attacks. I’m sure I could spend time personally reflecting on what it means to be two decades away from that day.
But instead, I’ll devote this space — as I have for most of the last 20 years — to my friend, Joe Ferguson.
The last time we had dinner, Joe told my partner John and I about how much he was looking forward to being a part of the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Typically, I found myself jealous of him. In his role as Director of Geographic Education at the National Geographic Society, Joe had one of the most unique and rewarding jobs I can ever imagine having.
He traveled around the world, bringing American school children face-to-face with the natural wonders of our Earth. He was not only a teacher but also provided a critical turning point for these kids, many of whom had never before left their own neighborhoods. Joe provided the path for these students to experience things that many of us never will in our entire lives. In addition, he got to travel to the four corners of the globe. How rewarding that must have been. How do I sign up for that job?
I got an email from Joe on Thursday, September 6, 2001. “Hi cutie” it started — typical opening line for Joe to any of his friends. He had just returned from Alaska and wanted to tell show me all the pictures, but the following week he said he was headed to California for another work trip. I printed out and kept that email for many months in my briefcase as a way to keep Joe alive.
As dawn broke on September 11, 2001, Joe called his Mom in Mississippi to give her a wake up call as he always did when he traveled. He said to her, “I’ll call you when I get to California. Have a good day.” He was that kind of person. The kind of person, who, no matter where he was and how busy he was, dropped a postcard to his friends so we could share a part of his experiences throughout the world.
At Dulles International Airport, Joe stood with his group traveling to California and took some last minute photos. He and another colleague were scheduled passengers on American Airlines Flight 77, accompanying three D.C. public school teachers and three students on a National Geographic-sponsored field trip to the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, Calif. After the photos were taken, they bid farewell to the children’s parents and proceeded to their gate.
At 9:37am, Joe lost his life at the young age of thirty-nine when terrorists slammed the plane into the side of the Pentagon at 500 mph. A teacher and positive role model to young Americans was taken from the world in an act of sheer violence and viciousness.
As I was dealing with the many emotions of the events of September 11, a thought crossed my mind the next day. Gosh, I thought, Joe had said he was traveling and now he’s stuck somewhere until the airlines are allowed to fly again. So I called his work number in DC and left a message. After I heard his voice for the last time, I said “Give me a call if you are checking messages.” “I hope you make it home soon,” I concluded. When I called that day, I had no idea.
It wasn’t until Friday, September 14 that I found out that one of my dearest friends had become a casualty of the attacks on America. Suddenly, this war was personal – it had hit home. I wasn’t expecting to have to go to two memorial services and walk around in a state of numbness for many weeks.
At Joe’s memorial service, there were lots of tears and lots of laughs as well. One of Joe’s friends told the gathering that Joe had this way of making you feel as if you were his best friend in the world. I knew exactly what he meant. I saw Joe every once in a while. We would have lunch, or more likely trade emails or phone calls. But every time we talked, I felt like Joe’s best friend. Joe still has a lot of best friends all around the world.
Perhaps Joe’s death hit me so hard because it was the first death of someone close to me that I had experienced as an adult. I am still surprised by the impact that his death has had, and in many ways continues to have, on my life. In fact, I did a lot of personal reflecting in the months following 9/11. I questioned how important my job and even my life were in a time of war where terrorists could invade your workplace or your school and slaughter you with no remorse. I questioned what value and worth my own career had in comparison with a man who had chosen to teach and change the lives of young people. I felt trapped in a good job that was giving me no personal satisfaction.
All I could remember was how happy Joe always was and how that cheer was infectious to all of his friends and colleagues. I would miss that cheerful influence on me. Joe had made the choice to live life to the fullest extent possible. He was the model of an optimistic American who knows no frontiers and no bounds. He was doing more than his fair share of contributing to a better society.
My partner John and I took a trip to the American West in the summer of 2003 and followed some of the Lewis & Clark Trail. I know Joe would have loved the scenery and spirit of America that lives and breathes in the land of Montana and Wyoming. The IMAX film about the “Corps of Discovery” produced by the National Geographic Society — Lewis & Clark: The Great Journey West — was dedicated to the memory of Joe Ferguson. It is available on DVD and I strongly recommend watching it.
One day in early 2002, I heard a song on the radio that I don’t remember hearing before 9/11/2001. I didn’t even know it was LeeAnn Womack voice, because the words are the soul and essence of Joe Ferguson. The words are an expression of his personal passion and love of life. And the words are also an inspiration for all of us to get through the many trying days of our post-9/11 world.
I hope you never lose your sense of wonder.
Get your fill to eat, but always keep that hunger.
May you never take one single breath for granted.
God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed.
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance.
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance…
I hope you dance.
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance.
Never settle for the path of least resistance.
Livin’ might mean takin’ chances, but they’re worth takin’.
Lovin’ might be a mistake, but its worth makin’.
Don’t let some hell bent heart leave you bitter.
When you come close to sellin’ out, reconsider.
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance.
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance…
I hope you dance.