• Norma Ferguson, left, and her friend Susan Uehling, in a photo taken during
one of their recent trips to Tanzania.

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    Norma Ferguson, left, and her friend Susan Uehling, in a photo taken during one of their recent trips to Tanzania.

  • Norma Ferguson, right, and daughter Joellyn, in a photo taken during a Girl Scout trip to Mexico in the 1990s. Mexico is home to one of four 'international' Girl Scout huts.

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    Norma Ferguson, right, and daughter Joellyn, in a photo taken during a Girl Scout trip to Mexico in the 1990s. Mexico is home to one of four 'international' Girl Scout huts.

  • Norma Ferguson, far left, and her Girl Scouts meet Gen. Alexander Haig during the 1970s.

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    Norma Ferguson, far left, and her Girl Scouts meet Gen. Alexander Haig during the 1970s.

FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- "Do not worry."

Those are words cherished by Norma Ferguson throughout her life. She turns 83 next week, but the celebration will seem muted when compared to her previous birthday. Last year's party took place during a mission trip to Tanzania during one of her many trips to Africa. Next week, though, Ferguson will have to celebrate from the confines of a hospital bed in her living room in Columbia.

Ferguson was diagnosed with cancer last month, shortly after returning from her latest adventure, which involved taking new Fort Jackson Girl Scout troop leaders into the woods for several days to teach them about camping.

"The next thing I knew, that's it," she said. "I've been a vegetable ever since."

It's an assessment that friend and neighbor Susan Uehling doesn't appreciate.

"Oh, please!" Uehling erupted from the other side of the room.

Even though chemotherapy has left Ferguson weak, her mind is still sharp and her eyes bright.

"Well, I can't do anything," Ferguson said.

"That doesn't reduce you to vegetable status," Uehling answered.

Still, being confined to bed isn't sitting well with Ferguson. Before her illness, she did water aerobics, bowling, line dancing and bingo.

"I've stayed active," she said. "I've always been active."

"Is this you rappelling off that rock?" Uehling asked as she looked through Ferguson's photo albums.

At age 70, the scout leader went rappelling, and her only answer to her friend's question is, "Probably."

"I went whitewater rafting for the first time last year," Ferguson said.

Ferguson has lived in Columbia longer than any other place in her life and, during her years in the city, she has been an aggressive supporter of Girl Scouts. Even though she has volunteered with the organization for more than half her life, Ferguson said her own experience with scouting is limited.

"I was a Brownie back in the 30's in Massachusetts," she said. "We moved, and there wasn't another troop nearby. My mother didn't drive, so that was the end of my Girl Scouting."

Her brief time as a Brownie made a lasting impression, though.

"One of the things I remember is that we used to put geraniums around the World War I monument," she said. "That was a long time ago."

While scouting has evolved over the years, its devotion to service remains at the core of the organization's principles, she said.

"When I think about this, I cry a little bit," she said. "When I was a little girl, our troop bought a doll. We sewed all of the clothes for the doll, and took it to this little family that had two girls who didn't have anything. They were so happy. Just thinking about the looks on their faces ... that's stuck with me."

Globe Trotters

Ferguson returned to Girl Scouts in the 1960s as a volunteer when her two daughters joined. Like their mother, they became passionate about scouting. Both children are now adults and have become lifetime members of the Girl Scouts. Ferguson said her daughter Joellyn was even a Brownie leader in Russia for two years.

"What we're trying to do is build girls who are courageous, strong and willing to speak up and be independent souls," Ferguson said. "And we want them to be the leaders of tomorrow."

Part of that process is creating new experiences for scouts, which is easier to accomplish through travel. While scouts sometimes stay close to home by taking trips to places such as North Carolina and Georgia, many of these excursions take them to places very different from the Carolinas.

Outside the United States, the Girls Scouts association is known as the Worldwide Association of Girls Scouts and Girl Guides. The group has four international "huts" available for scouts to use while travelling. Ferguson's favorite place to visit is a Girl Scouts chateau in Switzerland, which she called, "the closest place to heaven on earth. It's just beautiful."

"If I take a trip some place, I want (the scouts) to learn something in the process," Ferguson said. "I don't want them to just go to Carowinds and jump around. I want them to actually learn something. I've taken them to Williamsburg, I've taken them to old Salem, I've taken them to Savannah ... we stay on the move. And I believe in that."

This year, she took her scouts to Concord Mills, a 1.4-million-square-foot shopping mall located outside Charlotte, N.C.

"I had them go behind the scenes and let (the administration) tell them how the mall was run," she said. "They're old enough now to think about what they want to do in the future. They learned something in the process ... and then they could go shopping."

Her scouts were even obliged to show a similar level of discipline during a visit to the Swiss chateau, she said.

"Whenever we go there, we're divided into different groups," she said. "We've got chores; we do a little bit of touring. Once we hiked through the snow to visit a cheese maker's factory."

Ferguson has visited the WAGGS huts in England, Switzerland and Mexico, but never found time to make the trip to the hut in India. She said she never wasted time on fear while traveling abroad.

"My favorite Bible verse is in Matthew, which says, 'Do not worry. I've never had any real problems anywhere we've gone, or with anything we've done,'" she said. "I'm small, but I'm not afraid to speak up. I'm not intimidated by anyone."

"Didn't you go up to Alaska with the Girl Scouts?" Uehling asked.

Ferguson said she spent three summers working the Girl Scout Resident Camp in Juneau, Alaska, during the 1990s.

"And I've been to Tanzania six times, which has nothing to do with Girl Scouts," she said. "This friend of mine, who was a Girl Scout, asked if I wanted to go to Africa. I said, 'Sure.' I figured, because I had been a Girl Scout, I could adjust to anything I came into contact with. And I did."

'A Legend'

"I've only known her a year," said Carol Korody-Colwell, the Scout Leader taking over Ferguson's responsibilities for the Girl Scout district that covers Fort Jackson. "But, at that point, she said, 'I need someone to take over.' Whether she knew she was sick or she just knew she had to start sliding out due to her age, I don't know. But she introduced me to people on post and told me about the things that need to be done to keep the organization healthy."

Korody-Colwell said Ferguson is considered "a legend" by people involved with Girl Scouts in South Carolina.

"She allows girls to be girls," she said. "It's all-girl led and all-girl coordinated. She is a strong advocate of young women as leaders. She's a quiet presence. She doesn't do it for the girls, she lets them do it. She's always in the background. She lets the girls take the credit. She quietly leads. She's not a loud presence."

Ferguson's husband, James Ferguson, a former officer stationed at Fort Jackson, died at the age 58.

"He died of cancer very young, so she's been alone for more than 20 years," Korody-Colwell said. "She's told me that Girls Scouts is what saved her when she lost her husband. The girls were there for here. They gave her purpose, and they gave her a direction."

James Ferguson died in 1994 as Ferguson was planning a Girl Scout trip to Mexico.

"My husband said, 'Keep planning your trip,'" Ferguson recalled. "When he died, the scouts were very, very supportive, and they still are."

Ferguson managed to turn that loss into a gain for the surrounding community. Since then, she's devoted her energy to encouraging Girl Scouts to take an interest in improving themselves by improving the world around them.

One recent project involved renovating the building that Fort Jackson loaned the Girl Scouts to use. The girls offered to make improvements that could help bring the building's energy usage in line with the Army's green initiatives.

"They wanted to make their hut better," Korody-Colwell says. "They had SCE&G come in and do an energy audit of the building. We installed weather stripping. We cleaned up and put in a new floor, painted everything and refinished the kitchen cabinets. The girls did all of that to make their community better, with Ferguson's help and blessing."

As with Ferguson, Korody-Colwell became active in Girl Scouts because her own children wanted to participate. She said the ethics espoused by the organization and championed by people like Ferguson represent the kind of world she wants her daughters to live in.

"There's a behavioral and ethical grounding in the Girl Scouts," she said. "They don't put up with foul-mouthed stuff, inappropriate behavior or treating each other poorly. Those are the ethics I want my daughter to be raised with. It used to be an organization about earning badges, but the pendulum has really swung toward teaching girls about leadership. It's changed since I've been in Girl Scouts, and it's definitely changed in Ferguson's time."

Although the organization's philosophy has developed a progressive leadership approach, Ferguson said some of the changes seen during the last few years have been less positive.

"I'd like to see more people involved," Ferguson said. "The numbers have dropped. Children today have so many choices. Unless they're really committed to (scouting), it's hard to hold onto them. You have to have people who are interested in it, who love it and are dedicated. It's not a one-hour-a-week thing. There's lots of preparation, lots of paperwork."

Ferguson received the 1999 YWCA Woman of Distinction award, something she said she's especially proud of, if for no other reason than the criteria for the award has since changed. Today, she said, it's more difficult for Girl Scout leaders to receive it because it is now given to outside individuals and groups who indirectly support that organization.

The award will be displayed at Fort Jackson's Girl Scout hut, which will undergo a name change in coming weeks. Korody-Colwell said the scouts' nickname for Ferguson is "Sparkle," and the Girl Scout hut will soon be dubbed, "Sparkle House."

"I'm old enough to be their grandmother or their great grandmother, but that doesn't bother them," Ferguson said. "Most of the girls I know have done real well, as far as getting out in the world and taking their place. It's fun to watch them grow. Now I get invited to weddings and baby showers."

Page last updated Thu June 27th, 2013 at 00:00