Sketch of another Fergie

THE new Duchess of York, n'ee Sarah Ferguson, reappeared in the papers the other day: She is to open the Christmas shopping season in London's fashionable Regent Street by turning on special holiday lights. Such news items always bring back memories of another Fergie in my life. This Fergie was a hack rewrite man who ran the overnight desk at a wire service in Chicago. The father of a litter of kids, he usually showed up, in fall and winter, wearing a maroon pullover with smudges on the shoulders.

These were the days -- the early '60s -- when a dime deposited in a machine in the coatroom would get you a plastic cup containing a warm liquid impersonating coffee. Watching Fergie fish for a dime in his pants pockets was an adventure. He never seemed to have any coin larger than a penny, and he was always trying to swap 10, or sometimes nine, copper coins for a silver one. Before he produced any copper, he usually pulled out a little yellow sock or a small blue car or red fire truck -- debris collected from the floor at home.

Fergie was at his best on Monday mornings, the agonizing start of the workweek after a Sunday spent watching every play of every football game on TV and after a late Sunday dinner of something heavy and fried. He had trouble, in other words, staying awake. It was demoralizing to hand him your copy and then watch as he fell asleep while reading it. We're not talking here about lengthy think pieces, but mere headlines or news briefs three or four sentences long. I took to dropping a large metal wastebasket near his head to wake him.

Fergie was, though, an excellent journalist. He was a master at recognizing a good story and handling a big one. Several years after I left Chicago he was promoted and started moving up the ladder among what we overnighters used to refer to disparagingly as ``the day-side all-stars.'' Fergie jumped over two people who had been his superiors, and the last time I saw him I hardly recognized him. He was a vice-president by then, had proper teeth in all the right places, had taken to wearing ties and suits, and had even changed his name slightly. In the old days Fergie had always used his given name, Billy. When the vice-presidency came, the ``y'' went, maybe on the presumption that Billy is a name meant mainly for ballplayers and overnight hacks.

It will be interesting to see how this other Fergie on the other side of the Atlantic changes with time. She has already had her first and last promotion. The Duchess of York is it for her. She'll probably have children, but there will be someone else around to pick up after them.

Fergie's litter is grown by now and he wants to be called Bill rather than Billy, but I'd still like to think that if old Fergie dug deep enough in his pockets he might find nothing but copper and a little yellow sock.

Larry McCoy works for CBS News.

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