RICHLAND -- The tears started flowing Friday evening nearly as soon as Tri-City business leader Bob Ferguson and his wife, Katie, walked into the Richland Red Lion lobby.
"Oh, my gosh. What's going on?" he asked as his daughters from Portland and Illinois stepped up to hug him and he pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his eyes.
Inside the hotel ballroom, 175 people had gathered for a surprise tribute to him organized by Washington State University Tri-Cities.
After more than 30 years in the Tri-Cities, the Fergusons are moving to a Portland retirement community, where they'll be closer to one of their daughters and her family.
But they had their own surprise for the Tri-Cities before they leave.
To cap what was a bittersweet evening, Vicky Carwein, chancellor of WSU Tri-Cities, announced that the Fergusons were donating $100,000 to start the William R. Wiley Scholarship.
The scholarship will honor their friend, the former director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a man who knew where education could take a black man born in the 1930s, Carwein said. The scholarship will help black and other minority students studying science, technology, engineering, math or nursing at the Tri-Cities campus.
Bob Ferguson was born in 1932 in rural Idaho, and when he was growing up, he had to make his own opportunities, said his wife, a longtime teacher, in a video tribute produced by ImageWorks Media Group and WSU Tri-Cities.
He used a physics degree to begin his nuclear career at Hanford as a reactor physicist and operations supervisor in the late '50s. Although he took jobs across the country in the earlier years of his career, the family kept coming back to the Tri-Cities.
He became a champion for nuclear power, Hanford nuclear reservation cleanup and economic development, said Frank Armijo, vice president of energy and environment for Lockheed Martin Information Systems.
Ferguson was the first president of the Tri-City Nuclear Industrial Council, now called the Tri-City Development Council. He has held senior management positions in the Department of Energy and Energy Northwest. But most recently he's been known in the Tri-Cities as an entrepreneur.
He's never been short of ideas, said Duane Schmoker, vice president for the Global Management and Services Operations Group of URS.
Bob Ferguson was president of R.L. Ferguson & Associates from 1985-91 and in 1998 founded Nuvotec and served as chief executive officer and chairman of the board until 2007.
He can be a formidable foe, Armijo said.
His most recent cause has led him and two other Tri-City business leaders to sue President Obama over the termination of the Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste repository.
But more stories were told Friday night of Bob Ferguson's kindness, both to the many people he mentored and to those he didn't know.
His daughters, Cathie Kolinski and Colleen Lowry, told a story they'd heard only by chance from a friend who was with their father on one of his many trips to Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Tri-Cities.
Approached on a winter day in 2004 by a "lost soul" recently released from prison, Bob Ferguson thought twice about giving him money. Instead, he marched the man past an objecting doorman at a hotel, saying, "He's with me."
He checked the homeless man in and covered breakfast. He told the staff to help the man contact a shelter in the morning and then advised the man to make good use of his new start on life.
As the Fergusons leave the Tri-Cities, they're "making a difference in student lives year after year," Armijo said. "That's what he and Katie are like."
-- See the video tribute to Bob Ferguson at www.tricityherald.com.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org