Mark Scureman walked into his room at West Point for the first time in 1962 and thought his roommate looked like a nerd. He encountered Robert C.L. Fergusson, a 6-foot-4-inch student with glasses and a “goofy smile.”
“He just looked like a geek,” Scureman recalled 56 years later. “He didn’t look the part.”
That didn’t stop Fergusson from following in the footsteps of his father and maternal grandfather, who both served in the military.
Fergusson, who went on to graduate from the University of Richmond, joined the Army and immediately volunteered for service in the Vietnam War. The 24-year-old ultimately died in 1967, after he was wounded in action but refused medical aid while his unit was under attack.
He was the first UR graduate killed in action during the Vietnam War, and on Thursday, the 51st anniversary of his death, former classmates and friends gathered at the university to celebrate Fergusson’s heroism and unveil a permanent display honoring him.
“He understood one thing: Words have meaning,” said his cousin, Robert Biggs, citing the ROTC code of leadership and excellence. “Bob Fergusson understood that, and he applied that in his albeit brief life.”
Fergusson was born in California but, like many children of military parents, moved to various Army posts with his family. Even with the frequent moving, he wanted to join the military — service in his family dates back to the Revolutionary War.
So in July 1962 he entered the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. He lived with Scureman, his once-skeptical roommate who realized he had “hit the lottery” 48 hours after meeting Fergusson.
Fergusson would leave notes in their room reminding Scureman to do required tasks and helped him understand military time and read topographical maps.
“If there was anybody who needed help getting through West Point, here I am,” Scureman said. “I would not be able to say I’m a West Point graduate without Bob Fergusson.”
Fergusson didn’t graduate from the academy, leaving after a year and a half to study at the University of Maryland in Munich. That fall he enrolled at the University of Richmond in its business school and was a member of the school’s ROTC program.
He was designated a “distinguished military student” and served as the ROTC cadet commander before graduating in 1966 with an industrial management degree.
Fergusson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and volunteered to go to Vietnam.
Soon after getting there in 1967, he suffered a combat wound for which he received the Purple Heart. Later that year, his company was under fire when he went out into the open to call for backup that silenced the Vietnamese. For that action, he received the Bronze Star for “exceptionally valorous action which undoubtedly prevented multiple casualties.”
Just over a week later, his company was on a search and destroy mission near Tam Ky when again it was attacked. Many American soldiers were killed, and the company’s commander was wounded. Fergusson took over the company and led the counterattack despite being wounded multiple times.
He lived for 30 days before dying at an Army hospital at Camp Drake in Japan on Nov. 8, 1967. Fergusson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross — the second-highest military award that can be given to a member of the Army — for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty.
“Fergusson never accepted defeat,” said Cecil Stinnie, the chairman of the Department of Military Science and Leadership at UR.
That legacy of bravery was on full display Thursday when the university held a ceremony to celebrate Fergusson’s life before unveiling a display of memorabilia, quotes and photos outside its ROTC offices.
“He was a hall of fame human,” said Scureman, who retired from the Army as a colonel.
The university has given out scholarships in Fergusson’s name to ROTC students since the 1990s, but it didn’t have a shrine to its first Vietnam casualty, who also was the first UR graduate to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. (A UR spokeswoman couldn’t immediately say Thursday how many graduates were killed in the war.)
Biggs, his cousin, thought that should change after attending a reunion of West Point’s Class of 1966, which Fergusson started with. To the members of that class, he’s still one of them.
“He’s a soldier, and we respect a soldier,” said Alan Nason, the vice president of the class, which has its own plaque as part of the display. “We’re proud to say that Bob is a classmate.”
Biggs knew UR President Ronald Crutcher from the president’s time at Miami University in Ohio and contacted him this year about honoring Fergusson.
“All I did was send an email,” he said. “I’m proud of what Bob Fergusson did in his life, and now hopefully what he’ll do to inspire cadets.”