Alumni homecoming royalty remember rocking the boat in 1975 vote
In their royal portrait taken at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 1975, John January and Marla Ferguson make a picture-perfect pair. Young, stylish and beaming, the two had just been named UMSL’s homecoming king and queen after the school’s liveliest election to date.
But there’s more to the story than the charming photo from University Archives might suggest.
“It was not all lovely,” recalls Ferguson, a sophomore psychology major at the time. “There were some people that were not happy that there was an African American woman in the campaign. But afterwards it was OK.”
Vying for the crown wasn’t something Ferguson had initially planned on doing during her undergraduate years at UMSL, but a group of fellow students encouraged her. When she won, it was a historic moment: Ferguson became the first black homecoming queen at UMSL.
“It was a very broad campaign, and many people were extremely pleased,” she says, 40 years later. “I was at home recently, looking at photos at my mother’s house, and it did bring back fond memories.”
While Ferguson’s successful campaign was a significant first for the young campus, a brand-new freshman was shaking things up in a different way on the ballot for homecoming king.
“I was initially removed from the ballot by the homecoming committee and the dean of Student Affairs for wearing a rubber nose, moustache and glasses,” says January. “So I ran a write-in campaign, with about 25 people wearing the disguise around campus handing out flyers touting ‘Beat the System’ with my picture.”
In the end, January ran away with the vote – and the election as a whole drew 400 more votes from the student body than ever before, according to the Oct. 30 issue of The Current that year (see page 11).
“The entire student body became involved, not only the typical fraternities and sororities, although the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity supported me and compounded the silliness,” January says.
The write-in campaign flyer January handed out was a hit, so much so that fellow students repeatedly begged him to put on the “nose and glasses” for the official photo taken during halftime of the homecoming soccer game and during the first dance. But January declined, for good reason.
“Even as an 18-year-old who had only been on campus a few weeks at that point, I understood the proud moment it was for Marla Ferguson, a lovely and sincere young woman, to be named homecoming queen, and so I refused to comply,” January says. “I didn’t want to belittle her in any way, or take away from the much bigger story – that of her being the first person of color to represent the university as its homecoming queen.”
Ferguson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from UMSL in 1977 and then a master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis in 1979. She relocated to Quincy, Ill., after completing her education and spent 20 years working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. More recently she has served clients in long-term care and as a hospice social worker.
Ferguson is also a newlywed, having married for the second time just last month, and the mother of two adult daughters – one of them currently attending Stanford University and the other headed to graduate school in the fall.
January graduated from UMSL with a degree in business administration in 1979. He was captain of the men’s tennis team – then known as the “Rivermen” – his senior year. January spent 32 years with McDonnell Douglas/Boeing before retiring in 2012 and moving to Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.
“The facial hair is a bit grayer, those glasses now have polarized lenses, and I go through a lot of zinc oxide to protect the nose,” says the avid cyclist, swimmer, runner and proud father of three grown children.
For more information about UMSL Homecoming 2015, see the schedule of events Feb. 16 to 21. And for more glimpses of homecomings past, search for the word “homecoming” in the University Archives’ digitized photo database.
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