Former senator Grey Ferris dies|[06/15/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 15, 2008

Former Sen. Grey Flowers Ferris, a longtime advocate for public education in Mississippi and a man remembered as a “kind and gentle spirit” died Friday, June 13, 2008, at home after battling cancer. He was 62.

His wife, Jann Ferris, described life with him as “an adventure.” Ferris, who served as a state senator from 1992 to 2001, first stepped into politics when he was elected president of the student body at Tulane University. Jann Ferris said her husband often acted as a mediator on campus as political pressures rose during the late 1960s.

“We all felt like he would be governor of Mississippi,” she said.

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After a short career in law and before becoming active in local and state politics, Ferris began farming and style cattle on the Ferris family farm, where he was born.

“His life shifted out of the legal and political world and into family and farming,” Jann Ferris said. “His life settled into a quiet and different routine.”

But, when talk of consolidating Vicksburg and Warren County schools surfaced, Ferris decided to return to his political roots. He was elected to the first board of the Vicksburg Warren School District in 1986 and worked to unite the two school systems. He served on the board for six years.

“It was exciting to do that with him. I had forgotten how good he was at dealing with issues,” Jann Ferris said. “He was brilliant at bringing those two worlds together.”

Sherry Fisher, who taught in the Vicksburg Warren School District for 32 years and served on Ferris’ campaign when he ran for the Senate, felt that Ferris changed the world around him.

“Vicksburg as a community is a better place because of people like Grey. He really wanted Vicksburg educationally to be the best it could be,” she said.

She said he would talk to her government class about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and “share his experiences.”

While a member of the Mississippi Senate, where he served two terms, he was elected chairman of the Senate Education Committee and committed himself to reforming education in rural and underfunded areas of Mississippi. He, along with Sen. Hob Bryan, were lead authors of the Adequate Education Act, legislation that changed the funding formula for public education and channeled additional resources and funding into the state’s poorest areas.

“I think that everyone in the Senate, even those who had different politcal views, respected Grey. Just through force of personality, he commanded a great deal of respect,” Bryan said.

Jim Bean, a former Republican senator from Hattiesburg, was just such an example.

“Grey and I were very close friends, but we were from separate walks of life, socially and politically,” Bean said. “He was perhaps the most courteous, respectful person that I’ve ever known. He leaves a legacy for the education of children in this state that in my opinion will never be matched.”

Mott Headley, who worked with Ferris through his farm, marketing Ferris’ cattle, thinks of him as a family man.

“He just had a great love for his family, his fellow man and his place. He had a special way of making you feel like what you had to say was important to him.”

While campaigning for lieutenant governor in 1999, his daughter, 18-year-old Jessica Shelby Ferris, died after battling an eating disorder and depression. Jann Ferris said through that difficult time her husband was “so wise and steady.” Although Ferris stayed in the race, he was defeated.

“I thought the world was ending, but he always kept me positive,” she said.

No matter what the situation, Ferris was a man who rose to the occasion, she added.

“I’ve never seen him not be able to provide what we needed, whether it’s a tragic or a celebratory time. He provided what we needed to get through or to celebrate the moment,” she said.

Jann Ferris feels her husband prepared her and other family members to move forward without him.

“When our daughter died, it was so brutal. We weren’t able to say goodbye. Having had to experience both, it’s been very, very lovely to have time to say goodbye,” she said.

But, he will be missed, she added.

“The biggest challenge is going to be to learn to live without him. He was my one true love,” she said. “We shared the highest highs and the lowest lows.”

In addition to his daughter, Ferris was preceded in death by his father, William Reynolds Ferris. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Lylen Terral Ferris of Portland, Ore.; his son, Jason Reynolds Ferris of New York; two grandchildren; his mother, Shelby Flowers Ferris of Vicksburg; a brother, William Reynolds Ferris Jr.; and three sisters, Shelby Ferris Fitzpatrick of Sturry, England, Hester Ferris Magnuson of Austin and Martha Ferris of Vicksburg.

Services will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church.

Visitation will be at Ward Hall at the church from 11 a.m. Tuesday until the service. A private burial will follow.

Memorials may be made to the Shelby Ferris Art Therapy Endowment at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children at the University Medical Center Office of Development, 2500 N. State St., Jackson, MS 39216 or to the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, The University of Mississippi, University, MS 38677.