Joanne Ferguson, 75, longtime counselor for substance abuse

October 02, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,sun reporter

Joanne E. Ferguson, a longtime substance abuse counselor and recovering alcoholic who had been sober for 34 years, died of lung cancer Tuesday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The Bel Air resident was 75.

Known for her tough-love approach to alcoholism, Ms. Ferguson ran a program for indigent addicts through the Maryland chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and directed the family program at the Phoenix Recovery Center in Edgewood until a month before her death.

She received countless letters and calls from families she touched, said Stephen Dengler, executive director of the Phoenix detoxification center.

"She was straight to the point," Dengler said. "She believed that the disease of drug and alcohol addiction is fatal and progressive. She made it her point to make her point while she still had the audience."

She related to her patients because she had been there, co-workers said. She joined the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at Franklin Square Hospital in 1972 and remained an active member, said a daughter, Margaret M. Miller of Forest Hill.

When she first became sober, Ms. Ferguson took a job as a secretary at the old Just House, which provided housing and medical treatment for homeless alcoholic men in Baltimore. Encouraged by her boss to study counseling, she graduated from what was then Dundalk Community College and made counseling a lifelong career, her daughter said.

For the past 10 years, Ms. Ferguson worked aggressively to find $6.5 million worth of free beds and treatment slots for up to 150 patients looking for recovery each month, said John Hodges, a former board member of the state chapter of National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

"She had a unique ability to tell you what you needed to hear, not what you wanted to hear," Mr. Hodges said. "She never sugarcoated anything."

At Just House, Ms. Ferguson kept stashes of cigarettes, toothpaste and toothbrushes on hand for residents. When they asked for money for those items, she provided them instead - to ensure they would not be spending the money on alcohol, Ms. Miller said.

When patients whined about losing a job, boyfriend or girlfriend, Ms. Ferguson would shake her head and sarcastically say, `Boo-hoo,'" Mr. Dengler said.

"She would say, `Get over it,'" he said. "There are those who look at that as being insensitive. But everything this woman did, she did with love."

Born and raised in Conneaut, Ohio, Joanne Delanty met Louis W. Ferguson at a dance when she was 15. After she graduated from high school in 1948, the pair traveled from town to town to find someone to marry them - successfully doing so in Silver Creek, N.Y. Ms. Ferguson had changed her age, according to her birth certificate, from 17 to 18. She turned down an acceptance from Ohio State University to start a family instead, her daughter said.

The couple lived in Troy, N.Y., for four years before moving to Essex and Middle River. Before divorcing in 1974, the Fergusons had eight children together. Their son Patrick died of leukemia in 1983. That year, Ms. Ferguson's second marriage also ended in divorce. She then moved to Bel Air, where she worked at the Hidden Brook Treatment Center.

Ms. Ferguson counseled patients at centers including Pilot House in Reisterstown, Mountain Manor in Catonsville, and through the Baltimore County substance abuse program in Lansdowne.

A Mass of Christian Burial for Ms. Ferguson will be offered at 9 a.m. today at St. Ursula Catholic Church, 8801 Harford Road in Parkville, where she was a member.

In addition to her daughter, Ms. Ferguson is survived by three sons, Louis E. Ferguson of Rosedale, Lee J. Ferguson of Pocomoke and Timothy R. Ferguson of Westminster; three other daughters, Catherine M. Burke of Harrisburg, Pa., JoEllen Ferguson of Hampstead and Jane A. Crusse of Rosedale; a sister, Mary Ann Gould of Essex; a brother, Edward J. Delanty of Lake Oswego, Ore.; 19 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

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