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9/11/2008: Remembering James Joe Ferguson, Always

Today, seven years after the terror attacks on America, I once again dedicate this space to my lost friend, James Joe Ferguson, who was killed aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when that plane was used as a weapon and crashed into the Pentagon.  This posting goes up at the exact time that plane was flown into the Pentagon seven years ago this morning.

We miss you, Joe.
-Bruce and John


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.



  1. Thank you, Bruce, for such a moving tribute to your friend. One of my best buddies in high school was at work in the first tower attacked. His office was just several floors above the impact area and apparently did not have a way to get below the fire. I am reminded of his murder every time I hear the phrase “nine-eleven”.

    But I am comforted knowing that he, along with your friend and the other victims in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, have been received and warmly embraced by Almighty God and patiently wait for time to pass and loved one and friends to join them for eternity.

    Comment by Trace Phelps — September 11, 2008 @ 11:26 am - September 11, 2008

  2. A nice tribute to your friend. thanks for that. I enjoyed reading it. -Joe

    Comment by Joe T. — September 11, 2008 @ 12:38 pm - September 11, 2008

  3. I did not know that you knew one of the passengers on that flight. Thanks for sharing this very moving story.

    Comment by MikeInSedona — September 11, 2008 @ 2:49 pm - September 11, 2008

  4. There’s some saying – I can’t remember what it is – but it’s something about how the quality of one’s life can be determined by how much one is missed.

    A moving tribute – many thanks. May your memories of your friend comfort you and all of Joe’s friends.

    Comment by SoCalRobert — September 11, 2008 @ 3:22 pm - September 11, 2008

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    Pingback by 9/11 and The Enduring Strength of the American People : Jenn Q. Public — September 11, 2008 @ 5:18 pm - September 11, 2008

  6. Seven years later and I still choke up reading that story, Bruce.

    Peter H.

    Comment by Peter Hughes — September 11, 2008 @ 10:07 pm - September 11, 2008

  7. In remembrance and honor of my best friend again on September 11, 2008, I share the words I spoke at his memorial service in Washington, DC in September, 2001:
    “I wanted to share with you tonight something that gave me great comfort three years ago when my brother, Bruce, passed away unexpectedly in London. Joe and Bruce were very close, and I thought this would be appropriate for this evening and for Joe.

    DEATH is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air f solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me , pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effort, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.
    Henry Scott Holland
    Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral

    Many of you know me, and many of you here may not, so…. I am Steve Snyder – Steve – also known to many of you as Mary, thanks solely to Joe, known to many – and especially me – as Joleen. Without Joe, there’d be no Mary… and I’d also have no alter- ego names… like MeeMaw…or Sheila, who Joe designed as Mary’s evil twin… she was white trash, you know, and lived in a trailer park and had a nasty temper! No, without dear Joe I’d just still be plain old Steve Snyder… and there might not have even been Joe’s “What-everrrr, Maaarrryyyyy!”

    A while back, my dear friend, Laura, gave me a picture frame about friends, which I think is fitting to share tonight – it reads: “FRIEND is one of life’s greatest gifts. Thoughtful in endless ways. A friend lends a hand without being asked, Encourages growth, and Supports change. In good times and bad times, a Friend remains reassuring and faithful. Time and distance cannot diminish friendship; it is Forever.”

    For those of you that don’t know, I am honored to have been chosen by Joe to be one of his few “Best Friends” – a role I’ve been blessed to play in his life for however many years it’s been. I really am not even sure, as it seems like Joe and I have been together forever. One of our first conversations of many at our home-away –from-home, Mr. Henry’s, was all about how we felt we had to have been separated at birth, cause we just knew we’d known each other forever!

    “Best Friend”….. “Friend”….. “Friendship”… what an absolute honor to feel Joe valued you highly enough to call you and regard you as such! Not one of us here tonight should feel anything less than privileged to be his friend and receive the gift of his friendship. “The gift of friendship”….. the GIFT…. I had never even heard that term before Joe put it into words in a card he sent me years ago. In that card, he wrote “Thank you for the gift of your friendship” – he THANKED me!! – for the gift of MY friendship! It was a gift that I gave freely and deeply from the heart all these years, and it was a gift I received in return from the one person who gave it to others better than anyone else… an example to us all!

    Joe has left us all with so many memories….some are private, not to be shared with anyone else, and many to be shared publicly, usually full of giggles and laughter! Joe also – and more importantly – has left us to carry on what I personally believe should be his lasting legacy: giving and receiving the gift of friendship. It’s a legacy we need to keep alive and carry forward every day of our lives, not only as a tribute to Joe but as a tribute to each of those we all call a friend. A friendship to Joe was something he treasured above all else in his life. And usually with a measuring bar set high….sometimes too high for others and sometimes hard to measure up to! A lot of us here have been above and below the bar at various times, not always a pretty thing! Joe and I always had that in common – a belief that a friend is much, much more than just a friend. It’s a term so many can use so freely. We spent endless hours discussing our standards for friendships and pitying those that, at times, didn’t meet our standards… but usually ending up laughing that it was usually our fault, not really theirs!

    In going forward from this moment on, I ask of each and every person in Joe’s life – those here, those who are not and wish they could be – to keep Joe’s legacy of friendship alive and honor it by devoting yourselves to your friends. Tell them you love them, as Joe always told us; treat them as family, as Joe always treated us. In our world today, friends ARE family, and family ARE friends. Support your friends with the type of support Joe gave so devotedly. Above all else, be a friend as you would want a friend to be to you. It is SO important, and so hard to find at times, but ultimately, it is a gift… to be given with love as any material gift is given, and to be received with gratitude as any material gift is received.

    Joe lives on in each of us on a personal and individual basis. But, more importantly, Joe will continue to live on among us as a group of people he called “my friends”.

    God bless you and I love you, my darling Joe!

    Steve Snyder (Washington, DC)

    Comment by Steve Snyder — September 11, 2008 @ 10:08 pm - September 11, 2008

  8. #7 – Steve, you just made me choke up again. God bless you.

    Peter H.

    Comment by Peter Hughes — September 12, 2008 @ 3:12 pm - September 12, 2008

  9. Steve- Your thoughts on Joe, are right on, you see I was one of his friends as well, and I still miss him everyday. Thanks for sharing your memories with us. They brought smiles and a few tears. I still have all my post cards and every now and then, I take them out and read them. I still have his number on my cell phone, just to make me smill when I see it. Cherie

    Comment by Cherie — October 18, 2009 @ 2:45 am - October 18, 2009

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