A Remarkable Friend

This is a brief tribute to a remarkable friend, Karen Ferguson, who died last month.  You can read more about her life in the following obits:

New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/business/retirement/karen-ferguson-dead.html
Washington Post  https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2021/12/29/pension-rights-karen-ferguson-dies/

Why was Karen remarkable? As the Times noted, she was “a Nader Raider, one of a legion of young public-interest lawyers who flocked to Washington” in the 1970s to work for Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who was at that time a heroic figure on the American political scene.  She chose to devote herself to working on pension law, an “unglamorous-sounding subject” that was actually full of human drama, where she was able to champion workers’ rights and effect enormous changes to benefit their future.

I met Karen and became her lifelong friend when we were both students at Harvard Law School in the 1960s.  I had just moved into Wyeth Hall, the women’s dorm, during my first year, and the delightful Karen Willner was in her third year.  Karen’s warmth immediately enveloped me, a lowly 1L. Happily for me, we stayed in touch after she graduated.

While I was finishing my three years at HLS, Karen married John Ferguson, who decided to attend the University of Chicago Law School, and together they headed for Chicago.  Karen wrote to tell me that she’d begun working at a downtown Chicago law firm, where she was the first and only woman lawyer. 

During my third year of law school, I actually interviewed with that firm.  Disillusioned with the D.C. of Richard Nixon (my original destination), I was thinking about returning to Chicago, my home town.  Although I hoped to get a clerkship with a federal judge, I also interviewed with several Chicago law firms.  After chatting for a while, the recruiter for Karen’s firm told me outright, “We just hired our first woman, and we’re waiting to see how she works out before we hire another one.”  (This interview took place after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the recruiter was violating federal law when he said that.)  I’ve told this story many times, to the amazement of most listeners, and I like to add that I knew who that “first woman” was:  Karen.

When I returned to Chicago, I began working for U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman [please see “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” a ten-post series beginning at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/].  With both of us living and working in Chicago, Karen and I enthusiastically resumed our friendship.  Because John was busy with his law school studies, Karen and I saw each other many times in downtown Chicago.  And one memorable evening, Karen, John, and I went together to see “The Yellow Submarine” at a downtown movie theater. 

I was sad when Karen and John departed for D.C. after he finished law school (and began his career as an NLRB attorney).  But their departure led to Karen’s groundbreaking new chapter in her life as a lawyer:  her launch into helping people by reforming pension law, with fairness as her first priority. 

We managed to stay in close touch during the many years that followed.  My memory-bank is filled with happy memories of our long friendship, including wonderful times spent together in both D.C. and Chicago.

I loved following Karen’s career, deeply enmeshed in working on pension-reform legislation, including the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, signed into law by President Reagan, and the Butch Lewis Act, signed into law last year by President Biden.  I reviewed her excellent book, Pensions in Crisis (original title: The Pension Book).  My glowing reviews appeared in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on January 25, 1996, and the Chicago Tribune on May 13, 1996 (“Pension Problems Come Alive, Along with Practical Guidance”).

Karen’s never-failing efforts to establish a secure and adequate retirement system, on top of expanded Social Security, are still under discussion on Capitol Hill. 

I also loved learning about the wonderful family she and John created, including her son, Andrew Ferguson, a lawyer, writer, and law professor at American University, and his wife and children.  My review and discussion of Andrew’s important book, Why Jury Duty Matters, appeared on this blog in April 2013. [Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2013/04/03/does-jury-duty-matter/%5D

One more thing:  When I wrote my first novel, A Quicker Blood (published in 2009), I named my protagonist, a young woman lawyer, “Karen.”  I later brought her back as the protagonist in my third novel, Red Diana (published in 2018).  Was I thinking of my friend Karen when I chose that name?  I was. And all of the current nonsense focused on the name “Karen” infuriates me.  Although there may be a few women with that name who have acted inappropriately toward others, it’s totally unwarranted to pigeonhole all Karens that way.  Just think of Karen Ferguson and all that she’s done to make the lives of hard-working Americans more secure.  That’s in addition to her being a delightful human being, beloved by everyone who knew her.

In short, I was supremely lucky to know Karen Ferguson and to call her my friend for over five decades.  I’ve lost—indeed, we’ve all lost–one of the very best people on Planet Earth.

2 responses to “A Remarkable Friend

  1. Although I did not know Karen, I do know you, Susan…so I can easily understand why you two were such good friends. Karen would be very pleased by your tribute.

  2. What a beautiful tribute.Thanks for sharing your memories about your friend.

    On Fri, Jan 21, 2022, 11:05 AM Susan Just Writes wrote:

    > susanjustwrites posted: ” A REMARKABLE FRIEND This is a brief tribute to a > remarkable friend, Karen Ferguson, who died last month. You can read more > about her life in the following obits: New York Times > https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/business/retirement/karen-fergu” >

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