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Bingo produces scholarship opportunities for UM students

By Tina Hahn 

University of Mississippi

The enduring game of bingo was first played in Italy as early as 1530. France took up the game in the 18th century. The game was standardized in the United States during the 1920s, with a rule book published in 1933.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when retired educators Sylvia and Bob Ferguson, of Iuka, are using bingo to help people from 18 counties in a 50-mile radius of their home earn college degrees. To date, the Fergusons have generously provided $1.6 million for scholarships to assist students enrolled at the University of Mississippi.

The Fergusons point out that they didn’t choose bingo; bingo chose them.

Seeing a need

Iuka has two state-regulated bingo halls, and its northeast Mississippi location attracts regular players from a three-state area. With the facilities owned by parties in other cities, Iuka residents watched as earnings left their community for years.

Some of them appealed to the Fergusons to buy one of the halls and invest the proceeds in the community, possibly through education. Always known for being innovative thinkers and dedicated educators, the Fergusons agreed.

“We thought about it and prayed about it, and we could definitely see a tremendous need for the profits to expand educational opportunities,” said Bob Ferguson, who has led school districts in the role of superintendent from Long Beach to Iuka to Kansas City, Kansas.

With 572 current scholarships (2,648 since inception) and countless local educational initiatives funded, the Fergusons’ Tri State Educational Foundation is making its mark not only in Iuka and at Ole Miss but also at many other higher education institutions.

To apply for a scholarship, an applicant has to be a resident in one of the seven Mississippi counties, five Alabama counties or six Tennessee counties covered by the foundation. Scholarship dollars follow recipients to whatever higher education institution they choose.

“We applaud the Fergusons and the Tri State Educational Foundation for identifying a creative source to ensure major investments are made in the lives of students, teachers, and their community,” UM Chancellor Jeff Vitter said. “Sylvia and Bob are expanding their remarkable legacies as dedicated educators by now funding an exceptional number of educational opportunities. The University of Mississippi is deeply grateful for this important scholarship support.”

Bob Ferguson remembers the challenge of figuring out how to cover the costs of attending college.

“Don’t forget whose shoulders you stood on,” he said, referring to the philosophy he hopes scholarship recipients will share. “I personally had to have a lot of help to attend college when I was young, so I am so happy to have this opportunity to give back.”

Scholarships are the Fergusons’ main focus but far from the only way the couple and the Tri State Education Foundation board members strengthen the community.

The foundation has provided resources to bring professors to Iuka so teachers could attain master’s degrees through evening classes, support to help local educators earn National Teacher Certification, resources for students to travel to science fairs and student organization conferences, support for local band camps, funds for computers, funds for smart boards, and support for various community activities.

“We never thought the foundation could have this major impact,” said Sylvia Ferguson, a veteran teacher. “The first year (1999), the goal was to award 12 scholarships, and we’re so pleased that it has grown. And it’s fascinating to learn what our scholarship recipients are able to achieve after earning their college degrees.”

High school sweethearts

Natives of New Albany, the Fergusons were high school sweethearts and have been married 56 years. In fact, they wed on the day of Sylvia Ferguson’s college graduation from Delta State University.

Bob went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Kansas and a doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi, while Sylvia also received a master’s degree from USM.

They are parents of two grown children and grandparents to three.