East Side native breaks career barriers, gives back to community
Sept. 26, 2012
By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs
Dr. Larry Ferguson remembers where he started.
Before he had a bustling West Ashley dental practice, before he had a wife and four successful adult children, before he had all the professional awards -- he was Little Ferguson, a boy from Charleston’s East Side.
His pastor asked him one Sunday morning on the steps of East Side Baptist Church what he wanted to be when he grew up. Then only 12 years old, Dr. Ferguson said he wanted to be a doctor.
“Little Ferguson,” his pastor told him, “When you get to be a doctor, I want you to promise me one thing: Don’t forget the Lord.”
Ferguson never forgot those words, nor the people and places behind him. This year MUSC’s Alumni Association presented him with the Distinguished Alumnus Service Award for his work within both his profession and his community.
College of Dental Medicine Dean John J. Sanders calls Dr. Ferguson as “a man in perpetual motion.
“He consistently prioritizes the needs of others over his own,” Sanders said. “He is an outstanding mentor and role model. I am very fortunate to count him as a great friend.”
From his East Side upbringing, Ferguson went to The Citadel on a full academic scholarship and graduated with a chemistry degree in 1973. He went to work at General Asbestos and Rubber Corp. in North Charleston and married his high school sweetheart, Mabel, a few months later.
Ferguson’s life changed course after a conversation that began as a meeting about life insurance.
The insurance agent, a friend of Ferguson’s, asked if Ferguson liked his job. After hearing Ferguson’s lukewarm answer, the agent said that he worked with dentists during his time in the Air Force, and that many of those dentists shared Ferguson’s chemistry background.
“I think you’d make a good dentist,” he told Ferguson.
So, on that suggestion, Ferguson went to the library to read more about dentistry. Then he enrolled in biology classes at The Citadel. He applied to dental school in 1975 and started classes the next year.
Dr. Ferguson graduated from MUSC’s College of Dental Medicine in 1979 and went on to lead professional organizations at the state and national levels. He became the first black president of the S.C. Dental Association in 2006.
Dr. Ferguson began contributing to his alma mater almost immediately after graduation. He donated money and worked as a clinical instructor at the MUSC College of Dental Medicine, even while launching his first practice with a classmate.
“The least I can do is give back,” Dr. Ferguson said from his current practice in West Ashley. “The MUSC College of Dental Medicine is a true blessing to the state of South Carolina. As a graduate, I want to do all I can do to help keep these doors open.”
He and his wife, Mabel, wanted to open some new doors on the East Side, too. They joined with a nonprofit ministry to establish the Sisters of Charity free dental clinic on East Bay Street in 2004, where the Fergusons could see their old high school from the third-floor office window.
“It resonated in my heart. This is where I grew up,” Dr. Ferguson said. “Here I am in a position now to help people who are not as fortunate as I have been.”
The nonprofit ministry defaulted on its mortgage in 2008, but Dr. Ferguson’s colleague, local orthodontist Dr. Lee Hershon, reopened the building last year as the Charleston Dental Clinic. Dr. Ferguson still volunteers there.
“Larry really put the seeds in the ground first,” Hershon said. “He’s been a real leader, not only in dentistry, but in the black community.”
Hershon taught Dr. Ferguson in dental school and became friends with him as the two men transitioned into private practice. He remembered Dr. Ferguson as a focused student driven by compassion.
“He’s a very serious Christian, and he understands that God expects us to help the less fortunate,” Hershon said. “He’s always cared about people, no matter what color, just doing service for people.”