Most men of genius possess marked characteristics and Woodbridge N. Ferris was no
exception. A graduate of the University of "Hard Knocks", as he frequently described
his early education in the way of life, he had no illusions. He was not a pessimist
nor was he an optimist, but a realist who was not satisfied with what he saw, who
had a clear vision of the field of endeavor he had elected to occupy and to make it
his life work education.
His experience in public school work convinced him that he could never expect to put his ideas into effect in that field because in it he found himself controlled by politically minded school boards. While Superintendent of Schools at Pittsfield, Illinois, he definitely determined to put his ideas to the test and satisfy an ambition which he had always entertained to provide underprivileged men and women with an opportunity to acquire an education regardless of race or age at the lowest possible cost.
As my father has indicated, the start in what was then a lumber town, isolated and unattractive, was not auspicious. In those early days my mother taught in the day school. Later, when night sessions were initiated she taught there also and managed somehow, some way, to take care of her tiny house and myself, then a lad of eight years. Incidentally, I did not attend any school until after I was eight years old, but my mother taught me daily with such good results that I later suffered no embarrassment from lack of knowledge when I did enter the public schools.
When I think back upon the Herculean tasks which my always frail mother stood up under, I am amazed. Never physically strong she possessed tremendous will power and an adherence to duty that I have never seen surpassed. With it all she always maintained a quiet exterior. She was an extremely sensitive woman, so much so that she suffered much unnecessary sorrow at times.
My mother was the product of a rigid and meticulous upbringing; her manners, her bearing, her speech the entire ensemble was that of an aristocrat. The reader can perhaps sense the courage it took to adjust herself to the life and conditions of those early days, but she accomplished it then and ever afterward.
On the other hand, my father was unconventional. His head and heart were so full of the task he had set for himself that there was little room left for consideration of conventionality. By no means did he ignore it deliberately it simply did not exist for him in the beginning. Mother helped him over many rough spots, but even when he was on his own so to speak he was so natural in his violations that no one seemed to mind. If, for example, he wanted to eat pie for breakfast he would . . . provided the pie suited him. He was particularly fond of good custard pie and I have known him to go out of his way when in the vicinity of Niles, Michigan, to get a piece of custard pie at the railroad station lunch room. Not infrequently he would sit beside a brakeman, an engineer or some itinerant traveler and chat in a friendly way entirely without embarrassment. He was always interested in people wherever he happened to be.
Often when he came home in the evening after supper, as we called the evening meal in those days, he would retire to the library, kick off his shoes and sit in his stocking feet in solid comfort, much to my mother's embarrassment at times because she was fearful some caller might drop in without warning, but in those instances he always managed to be shod unless the caller was an old and intimate friend.
Father was not clothes-conscious. He tried at all times to be neat and presentable, but he would not always have succeeded had it not been for mother. On Sundays, in particular, she would induce him, after considerable pressure had been brought to bear, to don his Prince Albert. Everything would go all right as a rule, provided at some time during the day he managed to escape seeing a job that needed doing. If, however, when he was "dressed up" on Sunday or any other day and he should chance to go down cellar and see a pile of ashes that needed removing or if he suddenly decided to weed or hoe the garden . . . he would pitch in, Prince Albert or no Prince Albert. It never occurred to him to change his clothes before performing any task of this character.
He had none of the characteristics of a Beau Brummel again simply because the matter of physical adornment was to him of comparative unimportance, while the constant development of his mental powers loomed in his mind as all important. All of his time not devoted to the routine of managing and directing the Institute was given to mental development.
He was an omnivorous reader; books were his constant companions at home and abroad. His pockets always bulged with a mass of clippings, notes and memoranda as did the "wallet" he always carried, with the result that when he wanted to find anything he always had to spend considerable time going through the material before he could find what he wanted and not infrequently getting impatient. On his return home from a business or political trip his "grip" would be full to bursting with books, always more in number than when he left.
Often when he visited me wherever I was located about the first thing he would want to do was to pay a visit to the leading book stores, and I have known him to spend hours browsing around a single store.
He had developed the power of concentration to such a degree that he could read under almost any condition. Invariably, in walking to and from the Institute he would read his book, paper or magazine. How he managed to avoid an accident at street crossings is a mystery.
When reading a book he constantly marked passages that appealed to him. I now have part of his library in my possession and I frequently run across marked paragraphs and sentences. In some instances on the book page margins will appear his appraisal of the ideas expressed.
His physical endurance was nothing short of marvelous, especially in view of the fact that after thirty he led a sedentary life took no regular exercise aside from that automatically acquired in the performance of his daily duties. His energy was unbounded he knew no limitation when it came to hours of labor, frequently driving himself unmercifully until mother intervened.
At times he was the victim of terrific attacks of melancholia, partly due to his inheritance and in part due in his opinion to some physical disability. At such time it was wise to ignore the situation and avoid aggravating it. Considering the fact that he was seldom free from worry or mental pressure, his resistance to physical deterioration was remarkable. This was due in no small degree to his recuperative powers. I have seen him board a train in a worn out condition, enter a day coach, roll his overcoat into a crude pillow, lie down and be sound asleep in three minutes. After an hour or so he would awaken refreshed and ready for another battle.
In his political campaigns he was the despair of those who traveled with him. No one could keep pace with him even the newspaper reporters. I remember one instance when my brother Phelps drove him at night part of the way from Big Rapids to Mackinaw City, another driver picking him up about halfway and continuing on through the night to his destination, arriving at dawn. That day father made some twenty-seven appearances in the Upper Peninsula, speaking either from the train platform, in the open air or in some hall.
He was not an orator as the term is usually understood. He used language that everyone could understand but had a unique way of tying words together to convey his meaning. His voice was at times husky especially when under stress.
His style was the same whether his addresses pertained to education, politics, religion or sociology. He possessed a keen appreciation of the dramatic; the value of change of pace; emphasis and climax, assets which were not the result of cultivation, but were part and parcel of his personality. His physical aspect in itself commanded attention. Well over six feet in stature, with abundant, unruly hair, gray even in his thirties and snow-white after fifty, with dark brown eyes that snapped, glowed and sparkled when he went into action, he was a commanding figure.
There was nothing phlegmatic or monotonous in his style of delivery. On the contrary, on the platform he radiated unbounded energy, in fact to such a degree that almost invariably he would leave the platform wringing wet with perspiration.
Regardless of the fact that when traveling with him I heard the same address many times, I never tired of listening to him his style was so simple, direct, vital and dramatic that when he was "wound up", as he expressed it, no audience could refrain from listening.
He was convincing because he had demonstrated in his life and work that he was both honest and sincere, that he practiced what he preached. Another attribute he possessed and displayed both on and off the platform was courage. Not infrequently he disagreed with his own political party regarding policies. If he believed he was right, no one could stop him from following through on his convictions. The best demonstration of courage he gave in the face of divided opinion as to the policy to be pursued occurred in connection with the great copper strike in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on July 23, 1913.
That strike and its aftermath I shall refer to later on under incidents in his administrations as Governor of Michigan.
Returning briefly to the subject of public speaking, father indicated to me many times that he always dreaded making an address and was never free from nervousness until he was actually under way.
The following extract from a letter written by him to me under date of April 28, 1927, may be of interest to the reader:
"When you have spent half the time in trying to master public speaking that I have, you will be twice as efficient as I am now or as I ever have been. Let me say to you that the injection of ordinary stories into an address weakens the address. Real humor must grow out of the situation. I am told that I have a vein of that kind of humor. I am not at all sure that this is true."