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Fergusons Find Way to Provide Hundreds of Scholarships
Sylvia & Bob Ferguson have found a creative way to generate millions of dollars in scholarships to help students from their area earn college degrees.

B9, I33, N19, G48, O65. Bingo!

The enduring game of Bingo was first played in Italy as early as 1530. France took up the game in the 18th century. The game was standardized in the United Stated during the 1920s, with a rule book published in 1933.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when retired educators Sylvia and Bob Ferguson of Iuka, Mississippi, are using Bingo to help people from 18 counties in a 50-mile radius of their home earn college degrees. To date, the Fergusons have generously provided $1.6 million for scholarships to assist students enrolled at the University of Mississippi.

The Fergusons point out that they didn’t choose Bingo; Bingo chose them.

Iuka has two state-regulated Bingo halls, and its northeast Mississippi location attracts regular players from a three-state area. With the facilities owned by parties in other cities, Iuka residents watched as earnings left their community for years. Some of them appealed to the Fergusons to buy one of the halls and invest the proceeds in the community, possibly through education. Always known for being innovative thinkers and dedicated educators, the Fergusons agreed.

“We thought about it and prayed about it, and we could definitely see a tremendous need for the profits to expand educational opportunities,” said Bob Ferguson, who has led school districts in the role of superintendent from Long Beach to Iuka to Kansas City, Kansas.

With 572 current scholarships (2,648 since inception) and countless local educational initiatives funded, the Fergusons’ Tri State Educational Foundation is making its mark not only in Iuka and at Ole Miss but also at many other higher education institutions. To apply for a scholarship, an applicant has to be a resident in one of the seven Mississippi counties, five Alabama counties, or six Tennessee counties covered by the foundation. Scholarship dollars follow recipients to whatever higher education institution they choose.

“We applaud the Fergusons and the Tri State Educational Foundation for identifying a creative source to ensure major investments are made in the lives of students, teachers, and their community,” said UM Chancellor Jeff Vitter. “Sylvia and Bob are expanding their remarkable legacies as dedicated educators by now funding an exceptional number of educational opportunities. The University of Mississippi is deeply grateful for this important scholarship support.”

The wall of the Fergusons’ Riverhills Bingo hall is lined with framed university and community college emblems noting each school attended by one or more of the Fergusons’ scholarship recipients. The larger frames reflect the schools that receive major investments, and Ole Miss is prominent in that group.

“This is our way of telling our patrons how the profits are used,” said Dana Degraw, who oversees the foundation’s day-to-day operations as executive director. “They are usually very interested to walk around and see all the universities on display.”

Bob Ferguson remembers the challenge of figuring out how to cover the costs of attending college.

“Don’t forget whose shoulders you stood on,” he said, referring to the philosophy he hopes scholarship recipients will share. “I personally had to have a lot of help to attend college when I was young, so I am so happy to have this opportunity to give back.”

The Fergusons’ Tri State Educational Foundation also recently created the James Robert Haines Memorial Scholarship in the UM School of Pharmacy.

An Iuka native, James “Jim” Robert Haines graduated from the pharmacy school in 1985 and practiced pharmacy at St. Joseph Hospital in Memphis and Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence, Alabama. He died in 2001. Haines’ widow, D.D. Walker-Haines Lambert, is an Ole Miss alumna who serves on the Tri State Educational Foundation Board.

Scholarships are the Fergusons’ main focus but far from the only way the couple and the Tri State Education Foundation board members strengthen the local community. The foundation has provided resources to bring professors to Iuka so teachers could attain master’s degrees through evening classes, support to help local educators earn National Teacher Certification, resources for students to travel to science fairs and student organization conferences, support for local band camps, funds for computers, funds for smart boards, and support for various community activities.

“We never thought the foundation could have this major impact. The first year (1999), the goal was to award 12 scholarships, and we’re so pleased that it has grown,” said Sylvia Ferguson, a veteran teacher. “And it’s fascinating to learn what our scholarship recipients are able to achieve after earning their college degrees.”

Tri State Scholarships are paid directly to Ole Miss and other institutions, and the funds can be used for tuition, books, meal tickets, residence halls and fees. Students who commute to college may ask for part of their scholarships to be converted to gas vouchers or even childcare expenses. Undergraduate students in the scholarship program must successfully complete a minimum of 12 hours and maintain at least a 2.0 grade-point average with no failures. Students have to submit their grades to the Tri State Educational Foundation twice a year. Individuals who wish to pursue graduate degrees in the field of education also are eligible to apply for the scholarships.

Among other initiatives supported by the foundation are vocational education, Boys & Girls Club, Crime Stoppers of Northeast MS, law enforcement training, and docent training for volunteers at the Tishomingo County Archives & History Museum.

The amount of money the foundation has to fund its scholarships and projects each year depends on the proceeds earned in the Riverhills Bingo hall, which operates seven days a week. Bingo itself has embraced modern technology, as many enjoy the game on the array of computers offered at Riverhills, while others still enjoy the traditional paper sheets.

The Fergusons, natives of New Albany, Mississippi, were high school sweethearts who have now been married 56 years. In fact, they wed on the day of Mrs. Ferguson’s college graduation from Delta State University. Bob went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Kansas and a doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi, while Sylvia also received a master’s degree from USM. They are the parents of two grown children and grandparents to three; their daughter Kristi, an educator in Iuka, is involved with the work of the Tri State Educational Foundation. The Fergusons’ second oldest grandchild, Braxton Phelps, will join the Ole Miss student body in the fall.

For more information on establishing scholarships at the university, contact the Office of University Development at 662-915-3937.

By Tina Hahn


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