It was just shy of five years ago, March 21, 2014, and it was the greatest day of work I’ve ever had, at this job or any other. It was an overwhelming time for me as we were working on the first Progress sections — six consecutive weeks of extra sections focusing on various aspects of life in Uinta County — that I’d ever been responsible for.
On that particular Friday, I had an interview lined up with Phil Ferguson, a retired school psychologist who also worked in the oilfield, his own oilfield. I don’t have the best memory, my wife will attest to that, but I remember so many things from that day. I suppose most people would if it turned out to be their best-ever day at work.
I didn’t know Phil. Herald Publisher Mark Tesoro had suggested we do a story about his oil business, Ferguson Energy. So I made an appointment with Phil, he came in around 10 a.m. that morning and sat down for about a 45-minute interview in our conference room.
Maybe he was using his psychological prowess to play mind games with me, or maybe it just took him some time to open up. But I remember he had a mystery to him, something almost, but not exactly, secretive. Later that day I realized that trait — whatever it is — came from his work in the oil business. The number of wells he owned changed several times over the course of the day, and no way was he going to tell me exactly how many were functioning or how much oil he’s pulled from his 1,000 acres of land about 20 miles east of Evanston.
He sort of explained later why he kept those details close to his vest. He said something to the effect that it’s just a hobby for him and people associate oil with wealth, so “next thing you know, Ferguson’s buying the next round and the next and the next.”
The funny thing about that is that Phil was a generous man. Nearly every time I ran into him over the last five years, he would offer to buy me a drink.
Our interview was wrapping up, and Phil was entering my contact info into his iPad so he could send me some photos of his wells and equipment. Then, out of the blue, he said, “Well, let’s go out there and you can take all the pictures you want.”
I immediately felt the stress of not being in the office to write or prepare for the next special section, but I couldn’t turn down his offer. We hopped in his truck, stopped at Maverik for some drinks and hit eastbound I-80, where he talked and I frantically took notes.
It wasn’t a harsh winter, at least not at that particular time. It was warm. There was a little snow on the ground but most of it had melted, turning dirt roads to mud. One great memory I have from that day is when Phil was telling me how the roads can be sketchy, especially this time of year.
As we headed up a muddy, bumpy road, he pointed toward our destination. When he told me how he’d gotten his truck stuck out there countless times, my mind shifted to the office and the work I wasn’t getting done and I hoped we wouldn’t get stuck.
He said when the weather cooperates, he has a couple of shortcuts he can take to get to his wells when he’s feeling risky. He pointed to a wet, muddy, slick road up ahead, then turned and looked at me and said, “I’m feeling risky today.”
I was a little nervous, or maybe a lot nervous. That particular road went along somewhat of a cliff. It was narrow and a little too steep for comfort in some places. We made it safely to his wells, but there were a couple of times we almost got stuck in the mud. Once there, Phil was all smiles. It was truly heartwarming to see him as he gave me a tour of his land and wells.
The picture of Phil that I will never forget is when he started his old Caterpillar road grader. He spent about 15 minutes trying to get it started. He told me that he can always get it to start but no one else could. He appeared to give up on it. We walked over to a tool shed, where he said pack rats sometimes squat. He showed me some of the tools and what he used them for. Then he walked back to the grader. He started it right up and, boy, was he beaming!
A few hours later, we headed out and he dropped me off at the office. I was in awe of what I’d experienced. I sat down and wrote a lengthy story about Phil and his oil company, and I was so proud of it. I’ve always felt that writing is easy when you’ve got something or, in this case, someone great to write about.
Phil passed away last Monday. I found out on Wednesday, when his daughter sent me his obituary. The email subject didn’t include his name, which obituaries often do. I opened the email and scrolled down to see the photo.
My heart sank. I guess I figured Phil was invincible.
I knew he was battling cancer, but I saw him a couple of months ago and he looked so good. He told me he felt great — that made me happy.
I admired Phil for his work with children and in the rough and tough oil business. I think the two jobs fit him well. He was genuine, kind-hearted and generous, but he certainly wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
Phil had a lot to say during the several hours we spent together five years ago, but a couple of things he said have always stuck with me.
“There’s never been a day that I haven’t enjoyed it out there,” he said. “I’ve wanted to quit at times, but I go to bed, wake up and go to work. And it’s all done with a lot of effort and two hands.
“It’s great psychology to find success, abilities inside yourself,” Phil said. “It’s wonderful to find that satisfaction within yourself — with the help of friends, of course.”