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Obituary: Ferguson McKay, 1932-2023 

Former English professor, dean of faculty and acting president of Lyndon State College judged people by their character, not their title

Published December 7, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. | Updated December 7, 2023 at 7:20 a.m.

click to enlarge Ferguson McKay - COURTESY
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  • Ferguson McKay

Ferguson McKay, 91, devoted husband and loving father, sadly left us on December 2, 2023, after a brave battle with Parkinson’s disease. He passed peacefully in his sleep at the Meadows of East Mountain in Rutland, Vt.

A Renaissance man before that was a thing, Ferg was an English professor, a delicate writer, a tender soul, a pragmatist, and a lover of classical music, good food and L.L.Bean plaid flannel shirts. He was sensitive, witty, refined, and both generous and frugal. Mostly, he devoted his life to his family and was the undisputed chief of our little family tribe, caring for our mother even with Parkinson’s and the loss of most of his eyesight from glaucoma.

Born in Belmont, Mass., on June 21, 1932, Ferg loved classical music, particularly the piano and the recorder, and initially wanted to become a concert pianist. He went to Phillips Exeter Academy, attended Harvard University and graduated from Amherst College in 1957, then received a master’s degree in English from Yale University.

Ferg met Jane Coyle at a church singles’ group in Cambridge, Mass. Jane had grown up in Cabot, Vt., attended Radcliffe and was teaching elementary school. They married on June 20, 1959, and moved to Albany, N.Y, where Ferg taught in the State University of New York system, then back to New Haven, Conn., where he pursued a PhD in English at Yale.

The family moved to Vermont in 1967, and over a 24-year career at Lyndon State College (now Vermont State University-Lyndon), Ferg taught English and served as dean of faculty, then acting president. As dean in the 1970s, he helped bring the nationally renowned meteorology program to LSC from a defunct college in New Hampshire. As an English professor, he most wanted his students to learn to write effectively, and he got a master’s degree in writing from Northeastern University in the early 1980s. He is fondly remembered by his students as a thorough, caring professor who taught them to express themselves fluidly through the written word.

Although raised in the ivory tower of academia, Ferg had little tolerance for elitism. He judged people by their character, not by their titles or stock portfolios, and was at ease talking to tradespeople and academics alike. He could quote Shakespeare, expound upon the problems of a septic system, figure out why a car wouldn’t start and wonder aloud what astrophysicists knew about dark matter. He also loved a good dirty joke.

Once in Vermont, Ferg cast aside his suits and ties, preferring white Hanes undershirts, flannel shirts and dungarees. He cultivated a huge and well-kept vegetable garden and embraced organic food decades before it was a trend. His daughters had to eat organic peanut butter sandwiches at school while their friends got marshmallow fluff. Much to his daughters’ dismay, he foraged for fiddleheads in the spring, then served them steamed with butter — the cause of a few mealtime stare-downs.

Ferg stood out for his thriftiness, even by Vermont standards. He carried his lunch to work every day in the same reused Walnut Acres granola bag. During the energy crisis in the 1970s, he turned the heat down so low that even the cats were cold. “Wear a hat!” he told his wife and daughters when they complained. But he made the house feel warm, safe and secure for all of us, the greatest gift a parent and spouse can give. He installed a woodstove in the kitchen and spent summers chopping wood.

The only thing he readily spent money on was good food, and he loved cuisine from around the world. An all-you-can-eat buffet was money well spent. On Jane’s 100th birthday in November, he ate heartily at his favorite Rutland restaurant, Roots.

Ferg’s biggest fix-it project was Jane’s family home in Cabot — a Victorian mansion built by her great-grandparents. After retiring from Lyndon State in 1991, he renovated and rewired half the house and jacked up its sagging foundation, and he and Jane spent summers there for the next 26 years. They enjoyed concerts at the Adamant Music School and plays at the Unadilla Theatre in Marshfield and Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier.

After living in retirement in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Brunswick, Maine, Ferg and Jane moved to the Gables at East Mountain in Rutland in 2018 to be closer to family, and finally to the Meadows. The family would like to thank the wonderful staff at the Meadows for their love and care and the devoted caregivers of At Home Senior Care, who helped Ferg and Jane live at home as long as possible.

Ferg is survived by Jane, his beloved wife of 64 years; his two daughters, Betsy McKay of Woodbridge, Conn., and Peggy (McKay) Shinn of Rutland, and their spouses, Neil Bainton and Andrew Shinn; his three grandchildren, Larisa and Andy Bainton and Sam Shinn; and his grandson-in-law, Kevin Hernandez. He is also survived by his younger brother, Donald McKay Jr., of Decatur, Ga. He is predeceased by his parents and older sister.

A memorial service will be held on Friday, December 15, 2023, 1 p.m., at Grace Congregational Church in Rutland, with a second memorial and burial service in Cabot, Vt., this coming June. In lieu of flowers, donations in Ferg’s memory may be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research  Arrangements are with Tossing Funeral Home in Rutland.

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