Second Interview
October 26, 2001
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of the District of
Columbia Circuit Court. The interviewee is John M. Ferren. The interviewer is Robert H. Kapp.
The interview took place at the offices of Hogan & Hartson L.L.P. on the 26th day of October
2001 shortly after noon. This is the second interview.
Mr. Kapp: John, the last time we were together we covered a period of your background and
then your life in Kansas City and your family’s life in Iowa. And when we left off,
we were beginning to talk about the move to Evanston. Can you tell me how old
you were at that time?
Judge Ferren: Nine years old, Bob.
Mr. Kapp: And did you attend elementary school in Evanston?
Judge Ferren: Yes. We moved to Northwest Evanston, and I attended the Frances Willard
Elementary School.
Mr. Kapp: Can you tell me a bit about your experience there; what kind of student you were?
Judge Ferren: Well, I guess I was a pretty good student. I enjoyed the school. I remember my
first teacher was Ms. Ramsey for fourth grade, and in fifth grade we had an
exchange teacher from England, Ms. Collingborn. I must have had some sort of
awakening in those years because I noticed she wore very short skirts and the
boys used to laugh about that. So we were noticing things like that in those days
at age 10, I guess. Ms. Collingborn was a very good math teacher, but she couldn’t
do much else, except she had this wonderful habit of reading to us. She read us
Treasure Island, and, in fact, she read all kinds of Robert Louis Stevenson. I was
just enchanted by her voice, and I must say that this experience got me very much
interested in literature. So, to this day, I remember Ms. Collingborn wearing her
short red dress, reading Treasure Island.
Mr. Kapp: And what other things were you reading? Or what were you reading, do you
Judge Ferren: Oh, the Hardy Boys. My father bought me my first Hardy Boys probably the first
year we lived in Evanston, but I started off on that series and I think read each one
as it came out. I turned that series over to my own sons and they augmented it, but
none was as good as the early Hardy Boy series.
Mr. Kapp: Do you have any particular memory of those days in elementary school?
Judge Ferren: Well, yes. First, in those days one never had to worry about safety. Even as nineyear-
olds we’d take the bus, for three cents one way, many blocks away to a
hardware store, for example, or even downtown when we got a little older. By
junior high school we were taking the bus or elevated train into Chicago, without
supervision. In later years, when friends of mine moved back to Evanston after
college, they confirmed that they’d never let their kids roam around town, let
alone go downtown, unsupervised the way we had done,
It was special, I think, that in our neighborhood in Evanston the boys and
girls played together, whether a game of kick the can outside or a Monopoly
tournament inside. Or, as new houses were being built on our block and elsewhere
close by, we’d all climb around the unfinished homes together, sometimes racing
paddlewheel boats we’d make powered by rubber bands in the water that partially
filled the basements. The universal sport was softball, played by boys and girls,
organized as “scrub” games played in the streets or vacant lots. And, in the winter
the parks would be frozen for ice skating, where the boys would all buy racer
skates and show off to the girls. Later we’d skate on a frozen lagoon just off Lake
Michigan. It was idyllic.
As to formal activities, I joined the Cub Scouts when I first moved to
Evanston at age nine, and I remember not getting into the den that I wanted. I had
not met many boys and was allocated to a group that I knew even less well. My
den mother, Mrs. Dieber, informed my mother that I had been acting out very
badly. I think that the transition from Kansas City to Evanston was a little bit
rocky for me. I think I acted like a jerk, and some of my peers told me I was
acting like a jerk. That had a real effect on me. I don’t think anyone before had
ever told me that I was acting goofy or that I wasn’t acceptable, and I still
remember John Murray standing outside the line going into school at the
beginning of fifth grade, and he said, “Ferren, I hope you don’t act like such a jerk
this year.” I’ve never forgotten that. And I think it had a real modification effect on
my behavior. I think I was a chastened fellow.
Another thing that I recall was the omnipresence of Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois. I did not live near the University, but you were
just aware of it, and I guess that was the first time I took an interest in Big Ten
football. The stadium was not far from where we lived, and my dad probably took
me to a Northwestern game. A couple of years after that, I joined the Boy Scouts
and was a Scout usher at those games. And so I enjoyed that a good deal.
I also remember that in sixth grade my friend David Peterson and I got
very much interested in collecting political autographs. This was the year of the
1948 election, and David and I decided to have a contest to see who could get the
most interesting political autographs. We knew that practically everybody was up
for re-election, so we wrote all the governors and got their autographs, and then
after the election, when half of them lost, we wrote the new governors and got all
their autographs. But you know, we got Harold Stassen, Arthur Vandenberg,
Dwight Eisenhower, who was head of SHAPE at the time; we got ex-President
Hoover. But my favorite, and I really aced out my friend on this one, was James
Michael Curley. He was still alive and may well have been in a federal pen at the
time- I don’t know. I wrote Curley and asked for his autograph, and I still have it
framed on the wall of my office today, where he wrote this letter, “Master John M.
Ferren,” my address- “Dear Jack, It’s always good to hear from robust young
fellows like you. Good luck to you and to all whom you love best. Yours
faithfully, James Michael Curley.” So I lucked out and remember getting very
much interested in politics at that time.
Mr. Kapp: Would you describe yourself as a leader 1n your elementary school years?
Judge Ferren: Yes. I think I was. I was a very outspoken fellow, and I wasn’t particularly
athletic, but I did play on the Cub Scout softball team with everybody else, and I
either played second base or right field, whichever was the weaker spot at the
time. I do remember that our Cub Scout team, in one of those years, was playing
for the city Cub Scout softball championship. I was playing second base; the
game was down at Boltwood Field in South Evanston. We were playing the Pack
30 Arrows. We were Pack 29. And one of the highlights of the evening was that
Bert Wilson, the voice of the Chicago Cubs, was actually broadcasting our game
over the loudspeaker. I’ll never forget that at the end of about the second inning,
after we had finally put out the side and started to come to bat, Bert Wilson was
saying, “the Pack 30 Arrows: 3 runs, 3 hits, and an error on the second baseman.”
Mr. Kapp: Well, you’ve mentioned your involvement in scouting In those years, and I have a
recollection that you had a rather lengthy scouting experience.
Judge Ferren: Yes, I did. I wasn’t thrilled with Cub Scouts, but for whatever reason I was
looking forward to Boy Scouts because Evanston had a wonderful summer camp –
Camp Wabaningo – up near Muskegon, Michigan. And in those days you couldn’t
become a Boy Scout until you were twelve, so I guess I had just graduated from
sixth grade. I was getting ready to enter junior high. I spent two periods at the
camp that summer and earned my tenderfoot, second class, and first-class ranks.
You could do a lot there, and I was quite ambitious to get through those ranks, and
I loved it. But camp had an extra dimension of importance to me. As I think I
mentioned earlier, I hadn’t learned to swim when I lived in Kansas City, and
although I started lessons at the YMCA when I was nine, in fourth grade, if you
will recall, I said that one of the three of us who started those lessons, Gary
Geiger, died of polio. I had not resumed swimming lessons as a result. So I went
off to scout camp not knowing how to swim. In that month that I was there, I
learned to swim. I started out as sort of a nonswimmer and ended up with my
white tag, which meant that I could swim 100 yards. I must admit I did most of it
by side stroke, but all you had to do was 100 yards without touching bottom. I’ll
jump ahead to say that this was so meaningful to me; it gave me a sense of wellbeing
that I can hardly describe, except to say that a number of years later, I was
on the camp staff teaching lifesaving. So scouts, more than anything else, taught
me how to swim, and, as I say, that was a life-changing experience.
Mr. Kapp: How far did you go in scouting?
Judge Ferren: I earned my Eagle rank. I just enjoyed it thoroughly. We had a very active troop in
Evanston, troop 29. And I became senior patrol leader. But I think it was the
summer camp that made the difference. I went there several summers, earned a lot
of merit badges, and learned canoeing, learned sailing, learned rowing, learned
camping. All of those skills. The staff was a wonderful group of young men and I
became a real believer in scouting. I have been with it more or less my entire life
in one way or another.
Mr. Kapp: Do you feel that in any way the experiences of scouting have affected the way
you’ve thought about things, or approached things?
Judge Ferren: Well, it must have, Bob, because, as I say, scouting has been such a part of my
life, and I know I felt very strongly that my own sons should get into it. To
support that I joined the troop committee when Andy, my older son, became a
scout and eventually became an assistant scoutmaster of Troop 52. I’m pleased to
say that Andy stuck with it all the way through, and he’s an Eagle Scout as well.
We had a good time together in Scouts, including two long canoe trips in Canada
and South Carolina that I organized for the troop. I think that scouting had a very
important effect in helping me get along with people of all kinds of backgrounds
and interests and abilities. Scouting attracts a very diverse group of people. I don’t
mean so much racially; I mean a wide-ranging group of kids who aren’t all
leaders, or who aren’t all bright. And it gives boys an opportunity to excel in
something. I think it gave me a real appreciation of every kind of human being. I
found myself relating to kids that I probably wouldn’t have related to in school,
where there was a lot of peer pressure to go along with the leaders or be a leader
or hang out with the best and the brightest. It’s kind of hard to articulate. But in
scouting I found myself relating to kids that found it hard, and I found myself
helping them and feeling good about that. Kids would tell me stories about their
growing up. Some of them, a few, came from Chicago; a few came from parts of
Evanston that were not as well off as the part I lived in, even though the town is a
fairly well-to-do suburb. I’m just rambling now, but as you were mentioning
scouts, I was recalling I had an appreciation of the boys and found that my
friendships could extend to just about anyone. I think that was a very good feeling
and a very good awareness that every human being has something to offer you if
you give that person a chance.
Mr. Kapp: We’re still talking about elementary school years here. I know that you’ve had a
life-long interest in music and have expressed yourself in various ways with
music. We’ll probably talk about some of that later. I wonder if you were exposed
to music during your elementary school years, or if that came later?
Judge Ferren: Well, as I mentioned last time, I had started piano lessons in Kansas City, and my
mother enrolled me when we first came to Evanston in the Evanston
Conservatory, where I took lessons from what I thought was a very good teacher.
But my mother thought she was a better piano player than piano teacher, and so
my mother enrolled me at Northwestern with Ms. Kisch. I’d go down there every
week for a piano lesson, and, as I mentioned before, we had theory lessons, music
theory lessons on Saturday mornings. I stuck with that right into junior high
I loved playing the piano. The way they taught you piano in those days
was to give you music that had classical themes, and so I would play themes from
symphonies on the piano. That actually began as early as Kansas City. So I
developed a strong interest in classical music. I remember going to downtown
Evanston to the Norman Ross music store where they had these wonderful booths
where you would go in, they would give you any record you wanted, and you
could listen to it to decide whether you wanted to buy it. I can’t imagine how
many records were scratched by precocious kids who went in and played them.
But whenever my mother wanted to give me a little present, she would say, “Go
and buy yourself a record.” I remember the first record I bought down there was
Brahms’ “Second Piano Concerto.” And I bought Strauss’ “Estudiantina Waltz”
and “The Magic Flute Overture” by Mozart. I did this by randomly picking up
classical albums. I kept playing the piano well through my junior high years until
music theory on Saturdays conflicted with my YMCA club football games. So I
quit the lessons but kept playing the piano.
Mr. Kapp: Do you still play to this day?
Judge Ferren: I do. When I was a junior in high school, I was envious of friends who could play
popular music – who knew the chord system and could just sit down and play. So I
took a year’s worth of popular music once a week from Lloyd Norian, who
showed me chording. That was a real breakthrough, and now I mostly play that
kind of music, except when Linda and I try to plunk out duets of Scott Joplin rags
and have fun doing that.
I’m reminded, in talking about music, that I played the piano in the Willard
School orchestra and in sixth grade took up the tuba. That spring the orchestra
featured a piece that included a solo for Eddie Schwer on the clarinet,
accompanied by my oom-pahs. I got through the number nicely, but that was, I
think, the last time I played the tuba.
I should add that another major influence during these years was the
YMCA. The year after Gary died, I resumed activity at the Y, which organized
boys into clubs with a counselor, who is usually one of the dads. We’d meet once a
week; it was sort of like a scout patrol meeting, but this was the YMCA, where
the important thing was swimming and playing sports. And that was a big
influence on me. I was in the Glenn Davis Club, and we would play against the
Charlie Trippy club or the Doc Blanchard club. We had great rivalries, and that
was a wonderful part of growing up in Evanston in those elementary and junior
high days too. We played basketball, football, softball.
Mr. Kapp: Even I remember the Evanston Y, which was quite a great place. When you left
elementary school, you went to junior high where?
Judge Ferren: Yes, to the Haven Junior High School. There were two junior highs in Evanston.
One in the north and one in the south part of town. Haven was the northern junior
high. And quite a few elementary schools fed into that, so I, of course, widened
my acquaintances and friends in town that way. To this day one of my closest
friends is Bob Teare, whom I first met at Haven. Bob and I were inseparable in
high school, and in a couple of summers after we’d come home from college Bob
and I took jobs sorting sheet metal at Central Steel & Wire Company on the
Southwest side of Chicago. That was a valuable experience working with men of
many nationalities. To commute, we bought a 1947 Plymouth, which we sold to
one of our co-workers at the end of our last summer. But I’ve jumped way ahead.
Mr. Kapp: Any particular memories from junior high that you recall?
Judge Ferren: Yes. My seventh grade homeroom teacher was Ms. Barr, and my eighth grade
homeroom teacher was Ms. O’Brien, both splendid teachers. I remember that in
seventh grade, the second semester, I was elected president of my homeroom and
one of the jobs of a president of the home room was to preside on occasion at an
all-school assembly. Well very conveniently I got a cold, which my mother said
was hardly an excuse for not showing up to preside; but somehow I was
convinced that I was sick enough that I shouldn’t go to school. So my friend
David Brown, the vice- president, actually presided. I was very ashamed of that,
and I’m kind of surprised in recalling it. I can’t think of any other time when I had
such stage fright. I played at piano recitals for fairly large gatherings before, but
there was something about presiding at an all-school assembly that was daunting,
and I chickened out.
There were two other things about junior high that I thought were very
important. One, poetry was a big thing at Haven School. They had an annual
poetry festival, and every student in the school was obliged to memorize a poem
and recite it before the class. Then the teachers would pick X-number from the
seventh and eighth grades to present those poems at a general assembly of the
school. Well, I must not have been totally stage-shy because both in seventh and
eighth grades I was selected to recite my poem before the whole assembly. One
year it was Walt Whitman’s “0 Captain, My Captain,” and the next year it was
Joseph Rodman Drake’s “The American Flag.” I was obviously into inspirational
poetry, but I liked that.
The other thing about Haven Junior High School was its annual music
memory contest. Every student was required to take music as part of the regular
curriculum, and the teacher would teach us classical music by records and tell us
about the composer, and about that composer’s place of birth and work. It was
kind of a music history, in addition to learning music. And it was wonderful. And
it wasn’t just your ordinary classical music. I remember learning about Ippolitov-
Invanoff’s “Caucasian Sketches” and various other obscure but important
classical works. And then there would be a test, a music memory test. The teacher
would start a record, take the phono- graph needle, and plunk it down somewhere
in the middle of the piece and play it for 10 seconds and then lift it off. You had to
identify the composer and the piece, and you had to spell everything absolutely
correctly. Well, I excelled at that; I got every one right in both years, except I was
marked down on a piece. I don’t know whether it was Debussy or someone else,
but the piece was called “The Swan,” and I just wrote “Swan” without the article
in front of it. But I tell you that the music memory contest reinforced my interest
in classical music. It taught me a lot about people beyond just Beethoven and
Mozart and remains a very, very vivid memory.
Haven also required us to select electives in practical subjects, such as
wood shop, leather-working, plastics, printing, photography, even boys cooking. I
very much enjoyed taking these classes. I particularly enjoyed learning to set type
and run off letterheads, calling cards, and other items on a platen press. And I
recall turning bowls and even a baseball bat on a lathe.
Mr. Kapp: And then you went on to high school, and where was that?
Judge Ferren: Evanston Township High School. The two junior highs fed in there.
Mr. Kapp: Can you tell me anything about the subjects that you particularly liked and were
interested in while there?
Judge Ferren: Well, I liked all subjects. But before talking about high school, I should go back.
Just as my buddy, David Peterson, and I in sixth grade collected autographs
together, I had another particularly close pal from elementary school days, Carl
Lindenmeyer, and later in junior high Carl and I did two things together. First, we
competed in the soap box derby. Carl’s father was a professor of engineering at
Northwestern who took us to see soap box derbies in Milwaukee and elsewhere.
Mr. Linden Meyer was a good coach for building soap box racers, and Carl won
every year he entered. I entered in three years and came in fourth, second, and
third. One year, when I got second place, I was awarded the craftsmanship award
over Carl, so that made me feel very good.
The other thing Carl and I did was get an interest in chemistry. I think this
was generated by something in the Boy Scout Handbook showing us how to do a
wet cell battery. That required sulfuric acid, which we couldn’t get from any
drugstore. We called some scientific companies, and they wouldn’t sell it to us
either because we were underage. Then Carl and I got this notion that we would
find a corrupt druggist who would give us sulfuric acid. We found Mr. Hill in
South Evanston who was willing to do it. I don’t know why he did that because he
wasn’t allowed to. But we made a wet cell and that led us to want to get more
acid, and so we then bought some hydro- chloric acid from Mr. Hill. We got really
interested and each developed chemistry labs in our respective basements. When
we got to junior high school, we made calling cards in printing class. Carl’s was
Universal Scientific Company and mine was Superior Scientific Company. My
slogan was “Ahead of the Rest,” and Carl’s slogan at the bottom of his card was
“Better than the Best,” which I said made no sense. He said, “Well, you’re the
best. I’m better than you are.”
We then decided we wanted – in these days I shouldn’t say this – to build a
bomb, but we settled for skyrockets. We learned that you could use lampblack or
charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulfur; and we made a wonderful skyrocket,
which I recall shooting off in my backyard. It turned an abrupt right angle and
went through the window of the garage next door. That ended our overt
experience in pyrotechnics. But we went out and got some other pretty dangerous
stuff – some red phosphorus, some sodium metal. We managed to get somebody to
sell us this kind of material. Years later, before I went off to college, my parents
asked a chemistry professor to look in our basement to see if I had any chemicals
that shouldn’t be there. The man was appalled when he found some sodium metal
and red and yellow phosphorus. He said these were a terrible fire hazard. So dad
and I got rid of them.
Mr. Kapp: Were you involved in any particular set of activities at Evanston High School?
Judge Ferren: Yes. But before I get into activities, I want to mention my friendship with another
fellow from elementary school days, Bill Powers, who remains one of my closest
friends today. Like Carl Lindenmeyer’s dad, Dr. Powers was a professor at
Northwestern; his field was geology. But he had access to many things at the
university, and I remember, for example, his taking us to see Saturn through
Northwestern’s telescope. In high school, Bill and I worked together on Friday
nights and on the weekends at the counters and soda fountain at Keefer &
Templeton drug store not far from where we lived. As new drivers- at age 15 in
Illinois- we each enjoyed making home deliveries in Keefer’s De Soto. We also
occasionally would filch a cigar to experiment with as we walked home at night.
Keefer’s also was where I first learned about condoms. That was such a hush-hush
subject that, instead of asking for a condom out loud, a man would place three
fingers on the counter, which meant he wanted a package of Trojans. I also first
learned about the “numbers” racket from a man who came in every Friday night
with a card with names on it, lit up a cigar, ordered a five-cent cherry Coke, and
then went for a while into a telephone booth at the back of the store. The hardest
part of the job was hand-packing 1ce cream. Bill and I still reminisce about our
times at the drug store.
Before we could drive, Bill’s father often drove us to high school, but
almost as soon as we got our driver’s licenses Bill bought a used Harley 125
motorcycle, and I bought a used Cushman motor scooter- I think for seventy-five
hard earned dollars. We’d drive them to school and often take pretty wild rides
with them on busy roads – all without helmets, which no- body wore in those
days. My folks had resisted letting me buy the Cushman, but one day I asked all
my friends who owned them to drive them over and park them on our lawn. Mom
and Dad looked the crowd over and decided that they’d rather have me drive my
own scooter than ride on the backs of my friends’ scooters while they drove!
As to school itself, I think I said I was interested in all subjects. And I got
involved in my sophomore year in student council work. In my junior year I was
elected junior class president or some such title and ended up, when a senior, as
president of the student body of Evanston High School. So I guess school politics
was my principal activity. In those days, the Constitution had not caught up to
religion in the schools, and Evanston High had what was called an annual youth
conference that was supposed to be an inspirational day when students reflected
on their various religious faiths – the assumption being you had one. It didn’t
matter what kind it was, but I don’t think atheism was included. In any event, I
served on a planning committee for that several years in a row.
Mr. Kapp: What about sports? Any sports?
Judge Ferren: Oh, yes. I was on the high school swimming team, and we had state championship
swimming there. Our main rival was New Trier, a well known high school in
Winnetka, Illinois. One year we won the state championship. Some of my
teammates had stolen a silver doorknob off of a door in the New Trier natatorium
when we beat them in the dual meet. When we won the state championship, we
presented the doorknob to the swimming coach of New Trier with an engraving:
“Many are called, but few are chosen.” It was a biblical quotation. I should add
that I was a rinky-dink swimmer. Everyone else was very good. I had wanted to
be in sports, and the coach, Dobby Burton, who had been a Michigan swimmer,
said any boy could be on the swimming team; we would have no limits at all. I
thought that was wonderful. I swam the flying breaststroke. In those days, you
used a frog kick with a breaststroke. And I was a thin kid. I didn’t have arms that
could power me through the water at all. We didn’t even have a swimming pool at
Evanston High School, so we swam eighth period down at the YMCA. Most of
my buddies were swimmers, as it turned out, so I think that was one of the reasons
I wanted to join the team. Well, Coach Burton would create enough swimming
meets that everybody could swim. So when I say I was a rinky-dink swimmer,
that meant that while the good swimmers were in suburban league meets (while
I’d sit on the bench), I would get on a bus at other times with all the other lesser
swimmers and go down into the heart of Chicago to swim against Harrison Tech
and Amundsen and some of the tough schools down there. There, I did pretty
well. I mean, I wasn’t bad compared to that competition, so I got a little
gratification out of winning or placing in some of those meets. Those pools were
dreadful. There was algae coming out of everywhere in many of the shower
rooms, and I felt so bad for those kids in Chicago. I really got an eyeful and that
was an important experience. And I lettered. I don’t know that I ever got a varsity
letter; I know I got a JV letter every year.
Mr. Kapp: I must say as a graduate of Senn High School I am quite resentful.
Judge Ferren: Oh, we swam at Senn. That was one of them. I can remember the turn in the bus
that got us to Senn. Yes, yes.
Mr. Kapp: Any teachers at Evanston High School that had a particular influence on you?
Judge Ferren: Yes. There were a number. I’ll just mention three. First, Walter Rasmussen. I did
not have him as a teacher, but he was the gentleman who was in charge of the
student council, and obviously his influence on me as a mentor in terms of
developing leadership skills and running meetings and so forth had to I’ve got to
digress. I forgot to tell you that when I was in fifth and sixth grades, I had a job. I
sold eggs. I had them imported by railway express the first year from Bonaparte,
Iowa, from the mill, and I sold 30 dozen eggs a week. I’d check out the grocery
store to find out what eggs were going for and charge about a penny less. I must
have made 20 cents a dozen. The second year Kenny Warner, who ran the mill,
didn’t want the business anymore. It was too big a pain for him. So I found a
supplier out in Skokie, Illinois. My father picked them up coming home from
work. My cost was higher, and I could only get 10 cents a dozen profit. I
remember going around that year and telling one of the women, one of the
mothers who was one of my customers, that this year the eggs were going to be
candled. She said, “You mean they weren’t candled last year?” And I said no. She
said, “Well, I’ll take them anyway.” Then she told me a couple of weeks later that
the eggs were fresher the year before. I also had a job in junior high on Saturdays
and Friday nights in the coatroom at the pool hall part of the YMCA.
Mr. Kapp: And then when you graduated from high school, tell me a little bit about your
process of selecting a college.
Judge Ferren: Well, before I do that, I don’t want to forget to mention that in the spring vacation
of my senior year, four of us drove Sam Boatwright’s 1940 Plymouth to New
Orleans by way of Indiana, Kentucky, Oak Ridge and Chattanooga Tennessee,
Mobile, and Biloxi, then up the Mississippi River through Arkansas, Southern
Illinois, and back home. I won’t bother to go into details of the trip aside from
mentioning that we dropped the transmission on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee
and, of importance, we noticed firsthand evidence of racial segregation that we’d
never seen- or never thought we’d seen. Not long thereafter, I was talking to an
African-American friend and classmate, Betty Adams, about racial segregationthis
was the spring of 1955, not long after Brown v. Board of Education. I’ll never
forget Betty’s looking at me and saying, “John, think about when you go bowling
at the Red Crown bowling alley; have you ever seen any of us there?” I never had,
and I’d never thought about it. By the time I was in high school approximately
20% of our student body of 2,500 or so was African-American. That seemed
natural, and I must have assumed, without really paying attention, that there were
no racial barriers in public accommodations. Certainly not in Evanston! But there
were. And in the years ahead, as I assume I’ll get to later, that became a bone of
contention with my parents when I became very upset about the lack of equal
housing opportunity in town.
Now, back to your question about selecting a college. I think I told you that my
father had taken a master’s degree at Michigan, and I had a great fondness for
Michigan when they came to Northwestern to play football because (a) they were
a great football team but even more so (b) because they had a great band. And so
I just thought going to Michigan would be the greatest thing possible.
Mr. Kapp: Well, you were right.
Judge Ferren: I know, because you went there.
Judge Ferren: And one day Dr. Lloyd Michael, who was the superintendent of Evanston High
School, called me in and asked me where I was going to go to college, and I said I
thought Michigan would be a great place. He said, “I think you ought to consider
some other places, too.” And I said, “Where?” He said, “How about Amherst and
Williams?” And I said, “Well what are they?” I’d never heard of them. He told me
about them, and he said you ought to consider Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and I
guess I’d heard of them. At about that time the alumni got very active in
recruiting. So alumni from all these schools were pursuing all of us who were
high in our class. In the meantime, during the summer after my junior year, my
parents took me on a summer tour of potential colleges and we did go to
Michigan, which I really enjoyed, and we went out east and saw everything from
Syracuse to Amherst to Williams to Wesleyan to Tufts to Harvard to Princeton. I
don’t think we went to Yale. But we saw a lot of them. My mother loved the
chapel at Williams College much more than she liked the chapel at Amherst. I
was, for some reason, interested (maybe it was her influence) in a smaller
environment, and I remember that the Harvard recruiter Jack Hastings was a very
impressive man, but I just said, “Well, I think I’ll go to a smaller school.” So I
applied to four: Harvard, Princeton, Amherst, and Williams, and I was admitted to
all four. I chose Williams. One of the reasons I didn’t choose Princeton, which
was sort of halfway in- between in size it seemed to me, was that about a dozen of
my classmates were going to Princeton, and I thought, well, I’ll do something else.
I wanted to strike off on my own, plus my buddy that I collected autographs with
in sixth grade was going to Harvard, so I just – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat saying to myself,
“How can I go to a college that’s one-third the size of my high school?” And this
was about three or four days after I’d mailed in my acceptance to Williams and
mailed in my rejection everywhere else. I called Mr. Hastings and asked, “Mr.
Hastings, is there any way I can get into Harvard at this late date?” And he said
“Well, let me call you back, I’m sure we can work it out.” That night he called me
back and said, “Yes, I’ve got it arranged.” I guess the alumni had real influence
there. And so I went off to Harvard. As I think I mentioned, the only place my
parents were dead set against my considering was the University of Chicago
because it was a hot bed of “leftism” -I guess more so than Harvard, or they might
have worried about that, too.
Mr. Kapp: And what kind of memories do you have from those years at Harvard?
Judge Ferren: Well, in many ways they were the best years of my life – except that I think every
year is. I decided that I wanted not to room with anybody that I knew, and I
wanted to room with a large number of people, and so I was assigned to a quad
with three other fellows. We roomed together through four years of college, which
is unusual. One was David Miller, from Williamsburg, Virginia. His father was a
philosophy professor at William & Mary. J. Bion Philipson was from Idaho Falls,
Idaho. His father was with the Atomic Energy Commission. Bob Mueller was
from Ansonia, Connecticut, just outside New Haven. His father was a tool and die
maker; his mother was a nurse. And, of course, my dad was a Chicago
businessman. We added a fifth roommate, George Damoose from Grand Rapids,
Michigan, our senior year, the son of a wholesale grocer. So there was
geographical and family background diversity that reflected the kind of student
body you find there, and we got on very well. Bi Philipson, who was a graduate of
Harvard Medical School and was a surgeon, is the only member of my Harvard
Class of 1959 to be killed in the Vietnam War, and that has had a devastating
impact on me. He was caught in the Tet offensive of 1968. He kept putting off
going into the service to take one more year of residency, and he just chose the
wrong time. The four- then five — of us were very close.
I did nothing my freshman year except survive, and that year I was
particularly excited about a course called Social Sciences 2 taught by Professor
Samuel Beer. It was a compilation of six subjects: feudalism, the medieval
church, the Puritan Revolution, the French Revolution, the British Reform Bill of
1832, and Nazism. You had to write a paper for each of them, and it blended
political theory and literature with history. It just absolutely blew my mind. It took
my advanced placement history from high school to a new level. I think it was a
real intellectual awakening. It’s the best course still that I ever had; and, would
you believe, although I never met Professor Beer at that time, this last year at the
Woodrow Wilson Center, where I was a Fellow, I discovered that Professor Beer
was a senior advisor, and in his eighties. I met him, we had lunch, we had dinner
at his home, and it was a great treat.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I became a debater on the
Harvard Debate Team, and I guess I was probably the third or fourth best debater
there, never the best. Our four-man team won most of the time, and in fact my
junior year our best two-man team, Dave Bynum and Jim Kincaid, was runner-up
at the National Tournament at West Point. We had no coach; we had no funding
except what we could arrange from alumni. They gave us a 1953 battered up Ford
station wagon, which we drove to the tournaments. Dartmouth could fly and
Princeton could fly; they each had a lot of money. But we just drove our old
station wagon around. And I loved it. As a consequence, I was on the road as
much as I was at school, it seemed; and David Bynum, Jim Kincaid, Greg Harvey,
and I were a four-man team that debated together many times and had a lot of fun
together. Also, each spring vacation, several two-man teams went to different
parts of the country to debate at local colleges and earn $25 a debate to help keep
our treasury alive.
I particularly remember a trip that another splendid debater, my good
friend Rick Murray, and I took one spring debating in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
(Rick was from St. Paul.) I also enjoyed participating in three of the annual
Harvard-Yale-Princeton Triangular Debates. I recall losing at Princeton when I
was sophomore and winning at home against Yale when I was a senior. That
senior year debate was especially memorable because it marked the Harvard
Debate Council’s 50th anniversary. I can’t remember what happened my junior
Mr. Kapp: And you majored in history?
Judge Ferren: American history, yes.
Mr. Kapp: Any other areas in which you concentrated while there?
Judge Ferren: Well, I took the required distribution. Languages were not “it” for me. I had taken
two years of Latin in high school, and I took French as a freshman because there
was a language requirement. I came so close after one year of French to passing
the language requirement- which I think was a 560 on the college board examthat
I said, “Well, I’m not going to take it again. I’ll just retake the test. I’m sure I
can pass this time.” When I completed my junior year, I’d taken that test about
seven times, and I got worse each year. I was sure I didn’t want to take second
year French as a senior. So I hired a retired Evanston High School French teacher,
who entered into the corrupt bargain with me for money. I asked her, “Please
teach me every exception to the rule, or tell me or teach me this summer how I
can get through this damned language requirement.” She put aside her need to
have me love French and taught me. When I went back to take the test, I saw tape
recorders around and wondered what they were for. The proctors then said, “This
year the test is going to be oral.” I almost died. They turned on the tape recorder. I
couldn’t understand a word of French. I mean, my page was absolutely blank. In
the second hour, however, they gave a standard test. I went to get the results, and I
think I got a 650, with a little note saying they didn’t count the first hour. They
just wanted to see whether people could use the tape recorder. That was the
beginning of a sea change in language instruction in universities, where speaking
it became as important if not more important than just reading it. And so I passed
my language requirement. I took a course in calculus and managed to survive and
decided I’d peaked in math at freshman calculus. In my senior year, I took a
wonderful course called math for non-mathematicians, which was a math theory
course for history majors and art majors. But no, mostly aside from an English
course here and there, I concentrated on every history course I could take, and I
audited four history courses a year in addition to whatever other courses I was
taking. I would take notes, and in those days we had general exams in all fields of
history, followed by special exams in your special field. So you can tell, I was just
absolutely wrapped up in the field of history. I decided I wouldn’t become a
Presbyterian minister. I thought I’d become a history professor. Well, that
changed. That’s a long-winded answer.
Mr. Kapp: And what would you say about your academic performance during that period?
Judge Ferren: Well, I did very well. We had a class of about, I don’t know, between 1100 and
1200, and I think by my senior year I was in the top 50 in the class, and I think
that probably over the four years, I was in the top 100 in the class. I graduated
magna cum laude overall, but summa cum laude in my field and on my senior
thesis. And I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. So I did very well as an
undergraduate. My thesis was a biography of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy
advisor, Colonel Edward House. I wrote it on his Texas political career. The idea
was to do a biography of House to show why he became the kind of person that
Woodrow Wilson would eventually call on. And all of the House papers were at
Yale, so I spent the bulk of my senior year commuting to New Haven and staying
with my roommate Bob Mueller’s family in Ansonia, Connecticut. My roommate
George Damoose lent me his car during the week to do that. That was very
thoughtful of him.
One day when I was working at the Yale library, Charles Seymour,
president emeritus of Yale, asked to see me. He was a close friend of Colonel
House and had edited and published House’s diary. He told me that he’d promised
House that he’d write the colonel’s biography; that he had failed to do so; that he
felt very guilty about it; that he’d received reports that I seemed to be a prodigious
researcher; and that he’d arrange for me to come to Yale to pursue a PhD and write
a dissertation on House that could become House’s biography. Well, President
Seymour obviously had no real idea whether I was worthy of his offer; he was
trying to find a way to make up for his failure to come through for his friend,
House. I was most flattered, to say the least, and told him that I would think about
the opportunity very seriously – which I did. But events took me in another
Mr. Kapp: Other than the debating team, were you involved in any other extracurricular
Judge Ferren: No. I started out with the freshmen glee club. I thought I’d be getting into
“Sweetheart of Sigma Chi”-type music and other wonderful old rousers. After
three weeks of “Palestrina” and other music, all in Latin, I decided I didn’t want to
spend my time there anymore. Unless I come up with something I can’t remember
at the moment, debating was really my only activity.
Mr. Kapp: Did you make any friends there that have remained life-long friends?
Judge Ferren: Yes. My roommates that I mentioned and these debating colleagues. I was
particularly close to David Bynum, who went to Michigan Law School and then
eventually became an Episcopal priest and died about 15 years ago. That was
another severe personal loss to me, just as Bi Philipson, my roommate, had been.
And there were others, but primarily my roommates and my debating colleagues
were the ones I was close to and remain close to.
Mr. Kapp: And any other teachers, other than the one you have mentioned, who had
particular influence on you?
Judge Ferren: Yes. Professor Ernest May, professor of American History, interested me in
biography. In my junior year I took a one-on-one reading seminar with Dr. May,
who was kind enough to say he would do this for me, and the whole year was
devoted to reading biographies. Dr. May, like Ms. Taft in high school, did not give
modest assignments. In one week he would say, “Well, read Beveridge’s four
volumes on John Marshall,” or “Read Schlesinger’s three volumes on FDR” I
mean it was a prodigious amount of work, and then we would talk about it. When
I read the four volumes on Marshall, I remember the first question Dr. May asked
me was, “What did John Marshall look like?” I can’t tell you to this day how I
happened to remember as I zipped through four volumes on Marshall what he
looked like, but by golly I got it right! Dr. May took leave my senior year, so he
could not supervise my thesis, but a graduate student who was getting his Ph.D.
that year, Waldo Heinrichs, guided me through the thesis, and, of course, he was
very helpful in that regard. Let me think. My housemaster, Professor Charles
Taylor in medieval history, was a wonderful professor. Bernard Baylin, colonial
American history. There were many. But I think Ernest May and Professor
Samuel Beer are the two that I would identify as the most important.
Mr. Kapp: Just still focusing on your years in college. To what extent would you say that
your Harvard experience had an influence on your later life?
Judge Ferren: Let me think about that. I have to say that the first influence was to make as much
an Easterner out of me as a Midwesterner. I remember still feeling a tad awkward,
or more than a tad awkward, being in an environment that was so heavily private
prep school oriented even then, despite the fact that I was rooming with three
public high school guys. And I sensed a certain intellectual arrogance about the
place that troubled me, even though probably I was becoming that way myself- I
don’t know. And I remember along this line at the end of my senior year you could
try out to give a speech at class day. I came up with this speech (which I was not
selected to give) condemning intellectual arrogance and saying that people like
my grandfather Gus, who had never been to college – he hadn’t even finished high
school – had a lot to offer the world. There was a certain elitism, I guess that is the
word, that troubled me. The following year, for example, I was so much for
Hubert Humphrey, and so much against John F. Kennedy. Humphrey was strictly
a Midwestern populist who struck me as a more humble kind of person than an
elite Easterner. I remember feeling that way and yet having to acknowledge that
Harvard made me as much, if not more, an Easterner than a Midwesterner. I’m not
sure what I mean by that; it’s just that I came to have a real appreciation for the
University, for its ability to teach, to develop my mind, and to put me in touch
with a range of people from all over the United States who helped me learn just
by living with them. So it’s the people you meet there, as well as the courses you
take, that I think helped develop my mind and in ways affected my heart. I would
like to explore that a little bit more, but those are my initial reactions to the
Mr. Kapp: Any other people that you met at that time that were important to you in your life?
Judge Ferren: Yes. George Buttrick, as I mentioned, was preacher at the University. He was a
crotchety old Englishman who was one of the really well known, call it even
famous, Presbyterian preachers of the day. I would hear him preach three Sundays
out of four. There would be a guest minister on the others, and they would bring
in other very powerful preachers. I remember listening to Dr. Buttrick and his
keeping me alert to the Christian message and not turning my back on organized
religion. He had a powerful intellect. His sermons were very meaningful to me. In
fact, many have been collected in a book called Sermons Preached in a University
Church, which is on my shelf at home. So his presence there was extremely
important to me, although I met him only a handful of times and was not an
acquaintance, let alone a friend, of his.
Mr. Kapp: And you met Ann in those years, did you?
Judge Ferren: Yes, my first wife, Ann Speidel. Her brother, Joe, lived across the hall from me in
Kirkland House, up on the fourth floor, and, in fact, I’d known Joe since we were
freshmen. I didn’t even know he had a sister, but when I was a junior, she came to
Radcliffe as a freshman. I think I met her the first week of her freshman year and
the first week of my junior year, and we started to go with each other eventually
and were married several years later.
Mr. Kapp: Well, maybe we’ll pick up on that when we meet again next time.
Judge Ferren: Okay, good.