Thomas H. Ferguson, former Washington Post president and general manager, dies at 74

Mr. Ferguson's
Mr. Ferguson's "most important legacy to the paper is 15 years of good decisions," then-publisher Donald E. Graham said in 1994. (Washington Post File Photo)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 7:01 AM

Thomas H. Ferguson, 74, who served as president and general manager of The Washington Post from 1979 to 1995, a period marked by large gains in circulation and profitability, died Nov. 3 at a hospital in Southampton, N.Y. He had leukemia.

Early in his career, Mr. Ferguson proved he was a skilled salesman no matter the product - cigars, ballpoint pens or shampoo.

He came to The Post after serving as president of Parade, a magazine supplement that has appeared in Sunday editions of the paper since 1941.

As president and general manager of The Post, Mr. Ferguson was responsible for the business side of the newspaper, including oversight of the advertising, circulation and finance departments.

At the time, then-publisher Donald E. Graham said that Post circulation had grown by hundreds of thousands of copies and that operating income had tripled during Mr. Ferguson's career at the newspaper.

"Tom's most important legacy to the paper is 15 years of good decisions on the day-in day-out business of the paper," Graham told The Post in 1994.

Mr. Ferguson, whose role at the paper had no effect on news coverage or editorial content, said the business side had a symbiotic relationship with The Post's overall health.

"There are some people in the industry that believe the First Amendment has no connection with producing a profit," Mr. Ferguson said in 1994. "Managing that in proportion is difficult, and I think over the span of time that we've successfully maintained that balance."

Thomas Hugh Ferguson was born June 25, 1936, in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Irish immigrants. A prodigious basketball player, Mr. Ferguson received an athletic scholarship to attend St. John's University in New York and graduated in 1960.

After attending graduate business classes at New York University, Mr. Ferguson became a clerk at American Brands tobacco, where he worked his way up to cigar sales. He eventually joined Berol, a writing implement and pencil manufacturer, as a pen salesman.

Later, at American Cyanamid, he was manager of the company's John H. Breck shampoo division, where he was responsible for placing ads in newspapers and magazines, such as Parade.

One of his most effective marketing approaches, Mr. Ferguson often said, was placing small packets of his company's shampoos in hotel rooms for guests to use for free.

Mr. Ferguson joined Parade in 1972 as a vice president of marketing and became president in 1977. At Parade, Mr. Ferguson helped the magazine's circulation grow to 21.5 million and increase advertising revenue to $140 million, according to an Associated Press account.

For the first year he was The Post's president, Mr. Ferguson commuted every weekend to New York to care for his teenage son, who had leukemia.

In 1994, Mr. Ferguson used his business acumen to great success as campaign leader for the United Way of the National Capital Area. Under Mr. Ferguson's stewardship, the fundraising drive collected a record $75.8 million from local donors to benefit nearly 700 Washington area charities.

After retiring, Mr. Ferguson was appointed by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) to serve on that state's Economic Development Commission.

Mr. Ferguson was a Potomac resident until he retired to Southampton. Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Helen Walsh Ferguson of Southampton; six children, Gregory Ferguson of Setauket, N.Y., Donna Panagos and Nora Garvey, both of Bethesda, Cynthia Formica of Southampton, Thomas C. Ferguson of Brookfield, Vt., and Christopher Ferguson of Brooklyn; two brothers; and 12 grandchildren.

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