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Lovable 'Con Man' Says Goodbye

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George Ferguson (Victoria Times Colonist)

George Ferguson is gaining more attention in death than he ever did in life.

Not that he led an uninteresting life.

Ferguson owned a tea room, sought to make a fortune by devising household gadgets, and, for a spell, ran an antiques auction during which a parrot roosted on his shoulder.

These were occupations he took up after serving as a United Church minister in the vast interior of British Columbia, where his parish included the Gold Rush-era ghost town of Barkerville. His congregation heard "passionately improvised sermons," according to his obituary in the Victoria Times Colonist. As it turns out, lack of preparation in the pulpit was perhaps the least of his sins.

Ferguson was "generous to a fault,' as long as it was with other people's money. He beguiled women into financing his get-rich-quick schemes, none of which came close to fruition.

"Was he a small-time con man with grandiose schemes?" the obituary asked. "Probably."

Ferguson was not so much a man of the cloth as a man whose tales were made out of whole cloth.

Read more unusual obituaries here

The obituary has caused a sensation on social media. It includes little of the standard biographical information found in such family notices, instead describing with wit, grace and a hint of bitterness a colorful life. In the online Guest Book, celebrated Canadian poet Susan Musgrave took a moment to praise the notice's literary quality.

The obituary is rich with personal details, citing favorite watering holes, the fleecing of romantic interests and an arrest by heavily armed police. The obit includes little hint as to the identity of the anonymous author. Who wrote it? A former wife? An ex-business partner? A disgruntled victim of a con? Or had the unrepentant hustler played one last caper by writing his own unflattering farewell?

The answer can be found in a modest house outside Victoria, the home of the elder of Ferguson's two daughters from his first marriage.

Karen Shirley, a 53-year-old college philosophy instructor, wrote the obit shortly after visiting her father in his final days at the hospital.

"It told my version of his story," she said. "He had a sense of humor and there was some fun in it."

So far, the reaction from other family members has been positive, though she has yet to hear from her sister, who had read it before publication.

A more conventional retelling of George Edward Ferguson's life begins Aug. 13, 1936, when he was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, to Celia Irene (née Chant) and Alexander Ferguson. His Scottish-born father was an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the legendary Mounties.

In 1966, after ordination, he joined St. Andrew's United in Quesnel, a British Columbia town that had been the commercial center for a 19th-century gold rush. Less than a year later, the local Cariboo Observer newspaper noted the minister was already known for his "forthright and challenging orations from the pulpit."

His first wife, the former Shirley Tillotson, died of lung cancer in 1974, age 39, by which time her husband had purchased an interest in a hotel in a gold-mining town on a deep-water inlet on Vancouver Island.

In the 1970s, Ferguson operated the Blethering Place tea room in Oak Bay, a cottage suburb of Victoria, with his second wife. They also opened a fish-and-chip shop named Old Blighty, as well as an antique store. She preceded him in death, while a third marriage ended in divorce.

Ferguson held several dozen patents for heat-activated smoke detectors and for air and water filters. He devised a Christmas decoration concealing small gifts like golf balls. He also created a board game called "Golf Fore All" just as computer games began to dominate the market. None of his inventions ever earned as much as they cost.

"I don't do much of anything," he told a reporter who visited his workshop in 1994, "except come up with ideas."

He liked to tell a story about being with Christopher Rocancourt (aka Fabien Ortuno, aka Prince Galitzine Christo, aka Christopher De Laurentiis, aka Christopher Rockefeller) on the night the notorious con man and jewel thief was arrested by police in sleepy Oak Bay. Contemporary accounts describe the blond-haired, green-eyed French-born scam artist being alone at his arrest, though he was staying with his former Playboy Bunny wife at the old Tudor-styled Oak Bay Beach Hotel, where Ferguson was a frequent patron of The Snug pub.

As he aged and his health declined, Ferguson made his rounds between bars aboard an electric scooter. He was known to hand out candies to women patrons.

In his final days, Ferguson decided he had enough of medical procedures. In the hospital, he made farewell telephone calls to friends to announce, "I'm checking out." He drank a final can of his favorite beer, Old Style Pilsner. He died June 29 of a gastric bleed. He was 77.

"Turns out his timing was impeccable," his daughter noted in the obit. "The next day we found out he had been racking up ominous bank and credit card debts."

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By Tom Hawthorn

Tom Hawthorn is a reporter who lives in Victoria, B.C. He is the author of Deadlines: Obits of Memorable British Columbians.

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