Our Heroes

BY Mubarak Dahir

September 11 2011 4:00 AM ET

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Joseph Ferguson
Washington, D.C.

The National Geographic educator died doing what he lived for — traveling.

When James Joseph Ferguson was growing up in Mississippi, he always wanted to be the teacher or the librarian when he played school. Friends say the role reflected Ferguson’s passion for order as well as his love for education.

As an adult, Ferguson, a redhead whose Southern drawl was an integral part of his charm, was the director of geography education outreach at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. He developed education programs for schools nationwide, training teachers and taking kids on excursions around the world. “He adored kids and he breathed geography,” says Channing Greene, 38, of Chicago, who met Ferguson when they were students at the University of Southern Mississippi.

American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon after taking off from Washington’s Dulles airport, was to be the first leg of Ferguson’s trip to California’s Channel Islands, where he was to conduct an educational field trip.

Travel was a central part of the 39-year-old Ferguson’s life. “He could always tell you all this wealth of information about the people and the culture and the land of any place we visited,” says Ed Kaczmarek, 36, of New York, one of Ferguson’s closest friends.

And Ferguson was a stickler for more than geographical facts. He paid close attention to the details of his friends’ lives. “The night before he died he called and left a message on my machine to let me know he’d dropped my birthday card in the mail,” says friend David Merlin Duke of Nashville.

Ferguson’s other passions included clothes, music, cooking, dancing, and his dog, Winston. “When Joe got up in the morning, first thing he’d do was blast the music,” says Kaczmarek. “He’d dance while he got dressed, and I mean he dressed. Joe didn’t have clothes—he had ‘outfits.’ ”

 Ferguson’s comfort with his sexuality aided others in their coming-out process, particularly his friends from the South. Duke remembers looking up to Ferguson as a mentor when Duke was struggling with his own coming-out.

“Joe was somebody from the South, where we’re too polite to talk about homosexuality.” Duke says. “As another Southerner, he helped me develop a strong sense of pride and the ability to express it publicly.”