Mississippians reflect on men lost in 9/11

By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Pres

DURANT — Carolyn Hicks sank into a chair in her living room one recent morning, gently thumbing through a religious book titled “Hope of a Nation,” and reflecting on life since losing a son on Sept. 11, 2001.

The book was a gift from the hospital when Jerry Don “D.D.” Dickerson was born on July 29, 1960. It was a fitting gift, too, Hicks says, for a child who grew up and dedicated his life to God and country.

“We tried to teach our children to put more into the world than they take out,” Hicks said. “He did that.”

Mississippi lost two men in the 2001 terrorist attacks. They both graduated from the same high school in tiny Durant, a once-bustling town that began to decline years ago when it was bypassed by Interstate 55.

Dickerson, a 41-year-old Army lieutenant colonel, was working in the Pentagon when a commercial jet crashed into it. James “Joe” Ferguson, a 39-year-old National Geographic employee, was on that plane.

Despite going to the same high school, relatives say it’s not likely Dickerson and Ferguson were close, due to different ages and interests. But they are connected by history and the events that unfolded that September day. A granite marker was placed in honor of them in Durant and a memorial ceremony was planned there for the weekend of Sept. 11.

“To me it’s just so unusual that Durant lost two boys,” said JoNell Payton, a Durant resident who organized the memorial. “Durant’s just a wide place in the road. I don’t know what to make of it, I really I don’t.”

Dickerson was raised in Yazoo City and transferred to Durant as a high school junior to play football, his mother said. He joined the military during his senior year and shipped out the morning after graduation. He later went to Holmes Community College, and earned degrees from Mississippi State University and Texas A&M.

Dickerson’s son and daughter are now in college, though Hicks asked The Associated Press not to publish details about them. She wants to protect their privacy.

Hicks, who is now 72, was cooking for a large church group on Sept. 11, 2001, when she heard about the attacks. She kept on cooking, she said, trying to stay busy. Hours passed with no call from her son.

“By that night, we pretty well knew that we would not see him again until we went to heaven,” Hicks said.

Ferguson graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi before moving to Washington D.C. He did not have children of his own, but had passed on his love of geography to young people as director of an education program for the National Geographic Society. Ferguson was on a trip with a group of teachers and students when their plane crashed into the Pentagon.

“He touched a lot of lives doing what he loved,” said his sister, Sue Stanford, a 55-year-old school teacher. “Joe was real outgoing, real friendly. He loved working for National Geographic and he loved geography.”

Stanford now lives in Louisville, Miss., and remembers 9/11 in vivid detail.

“I didn’t know my brother was on the plane. When I got home I was walking the dog and thinking how thankful I was that I didn’t live in a big city” that could be a terrorist target, Stanford recalled during a recent interview at her home.

When the flight number was made public, Stanford’s mother realized it was Ferguson’s flight, American Flight 77. She hurried to the high school football field where her husband was coaching.

“It was the first time I ever interrupted a practice,” Stanford recalled. “When I walked on the field, the players parted. I guess they could tell it was bad. They just knelt down.”

Both Hicks and Stanford say the loss never goes away, but they must keep living their lives.

In the days before 9/11, Hicks said she felt the Lord preparing her for a loss.

“I want people to know that the Lord dealt with me that day. I knew he was expecting me to give something up, and to give it up willingly. And when I turned on the TV, I knew what I had to give up,” Hicks said. “You can make choices in life. I made a choice that day. I knew where D.D. had gone.

“I wanted to honor his life and his death,” she said. “I knew the life that he lived. I knew that I was giving him up to God. I did not want to ruin my life by becoming an old, critical lady.”

Sitting in a recliner at home, petting a dachshund mix named Snickers, Stanford said the country should never forget that day. She sure won’t.

“Life goes on, so you have to move on with it. But that loss will always be with you.”