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Banking executive makes impact through charitable work

By Thomas Olson
Sunday, December 16, 2007

When Pittsburgh banker/lawyer James “Jay” Ferguson III was a teenager, his parents set up a family foundation that gave to local health and education causes.

Now, he and wife Ranny are following in his late parents’ footsteps, forming their own foundation so their three children can learn similar lessons about life, community and the spirit of giving.

“It provides a venue for the family to get together, to be selfish about it,” Jay Ferguson says with a grin.

“But really, it’s to inspire the kids — as it did me when I was young — to research where the foundation income should go and to participate in the communities they live in,” Ferguson says during a recent interview in Gulf Tower, Downtown. There, he is Pittsburgh president of Fifth Third Bank — which, in the three years since entering this market, has made its presence felt, too.

The Fergusons’ own footsteps are something to follow. Jay and Ranny, both Pittsburgh-area natives, are a dashing couple — both in appearance and in meeting their busy schedules. The pair are practically ubiquitous in Pittsburgh’s social and philanthropic circles, and their influence is felt widely, say friends and leaders of various organizations.

“Jay and Ranny practice what they preach and help just about anybody that needs it,” says Carol Mitchell, president of the Verland Foundation, Sewickley. Jay served a decade on the board of the Sewickley group, which serves the severely mentally retarded. “A lot of people say they’ll do things, but Jay does them.”

“Charity work comes natural to Jay. He doesn’t do all those rubber-chicken dinners because it’s good for business,” says veteran banker A. William “Bill” Schenck III, who has known Ferguson for 45 years, including their many years at PNC Bank. “He does it because it’s what he thinks he’s supposed to do in life: be part of the community.”

Variety of causes

The Fergusons divide their time and effort between board service at organizations devoted to children’s health, education and welfare, as well as public parks and the visual arts.

They also are regulars at benefits and fundraisers for groups such as the Arthritis Foundation, Gilda’s (cancer-care) Club Western Pennsylvania, the American Heart Association and the Ladies Hospital Aid Society. For instance, the couple gave more than $2,500 in 2006 to the Children’s Home of Pittsburgh/Lemieux Family Center, one of their favorite causes.

“Four years ago, we needed to expand because we were out of space in Oakland, and Ranny chaired the committee,” says William Wycoff, a Downtown attorney and former Children’s Home board president.

Result: In March, the organization moved into a $20 million, 63,000-square-foot facility in Pittsburgh’s Friendship neighborhood. It contains 28 beds to care for children and infants with acute and special needs, plus day care for 60 kids and adoption services.

Three months later, Ranny Ferguson succeeded Wycoff as board president.

“Ranny really does get into it wholeheartedly,” Wycoff says of her decades-long Children’s Home involvement. “She’s always there when you need her.”

The compulsion to serve Pittsburgh communities “started with our parents, who were role models,” says Jay, 64.

Who would not be inspired by a surgeon father and pediatrician mother who each provided free clinics, as Ranny’s parents did? Or influenced by a Harvard Law-grad father and Chatham University-prof mother, as Jay’s parents were?

Ranny’s late father had been an obstetrician and gynecological surgeon whose practice included treatment of female inmates at a work house in Fox Chapel. Her mother served as a pediatrician at the Children’s Home when Ranny was a girl.

“I used to go and rock the babies there when I was about 14,” says Ranny, 60. She also remembers her mother conducting free clinics in Homewood, including escorted trips to the distressed neighborhood during the 1969 race riots.

“If we don’t give youth across all racial and economic lines value and a sense of purpose, it’s going to be devastating not only to Pittsburgh, but our entire country,” Ranny says.

Jay, a career trust attorney and wealth-management executive, has provided financial advice and fundraising expertise to two groups dedicated to blacks: the Neighborhood Academy, a charter school in East Liberty; and NEED, or Negro Educational Emergency Drive, Downtown, where he chairs the fundraising committee.

“There are threads that move you in one direction or another,” Jay says. For instance, a severely retarded trust client of his while at PNC Financial Services Group moved him to associate with Verland.

Deep local roots

Born and raised on 14 acres in Churchill, Jay gained a thirst for knowledge from his estimable parents and, perhaps, from further down the family line. His great-grandfather, Robert Gracey Ferguson, served from 1884 to 1906 as one of the first presidents of Westminster College, the liberal arts school in New Wilmington, Lawrence County.

Jay’s late mother was a Yale University graduate who taught speech and drama for about 20 years at Chatham University in Shadyside. His late father was a graduate of Westminster and then Harvard Law School before going on to become a partner of Tucker Arensberg & Ferguson.

Jay followed his father’s path into law, graduating from Dickinson School of Law, in Carlisle, in 1969. He then joined his father’s Downtown law firm, concentrating in trusts and estates. With most of his trust work being for PNC, Jay wound up joining the bank full-time.

He remained at the bank for almost 30 years, eventually rising to managing executive of PNC Advisors, the corporation’s wealth-management business. But he left PNC abruptly in late 2003 “because PNC had moved to more of a consultant orientation,” he says. “They looked more to outside consultants than employees for their strategies and business models.”

“He came home one day and said, ‘I’m going to walk, and there’s no umbrella,’ ” Ranny recalls. “I just said, ‘Absolutely,’ even though there was nothing out there at that point. Jay and I are a team.”

Meantime, Jay also had been chairing PNC’s charitable endowment. “So, I learned lots about different organizations,” he says.

Jay often takes philanthropic direction from colleagues. For instance, the late Mabon Childs, former vice chairman of the regional brokerage firm Parker/Hunter (now Janney Montgomery Scott), steered Ferguson to the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. Childs headed the investment committee; now, Ferguson does.

“Jay has done a superb job managing the endowment and investments of the school,” says board member and former Mellon executive Sandra McLaughlin of the $100 million-plus fund. “The school does not come up wanting, that’s for sure.”

As the head of Fifth Third’s Western Pennsylvania market, Jay also determines where the bank’s charitable donations go. This year, the bank has contributed more than $150,000 to at least 20 local organizations “where we can have an impact,” he says.

The Cincinnati-based bank got its peculiar name from the 1908 merger of Third National and Fifth National banks. (Minding the temperance movement of the day, the founders deliberately avoided calling the bank “Third Fifth,” Ferguson says.)

Local organizations sharing Fifth Third’s largesse include Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Women’s Shelter of Pittsburgh, Boy Scouts of America, Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania, City Theatre and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

The Parks Conservancy is a favorite nonprofit of Ranny, who has chaired the annual hat luncheon to raise money for the preservationist group for the past five years.

“We take for granted our green space in Pittsburgh,” she says. “The parks are for everyone, open to everyone and are free.”

She is particularly drawn to the Carnegie Museum, whose women’s committee she has chaired since June 2006. Ranny says she is “enthralled” by museum programs such as the recent holiday party for special-needs children.

“That’s what Andrew Carnegie originally envisioned, a place where all doors are open,” she says.

Faith and family

Part of what moves Jay to give back is his religious faith. He and Ranny attend services at Calvary Episcopal Church in East Liberty. “I’m not a ‘wear-it-on-my-sleeve’ type. But it’s part of your responsibility to give back to the community.”

The Fergusons began as a mixed couple — she, a Catholic, and he, a Presbyterian. “So, we met in the middle, and became Episcopalian,” Jay says with a laugh. They met on a blind date in Sewickley and got married about three years later, in June 1968, two weeks after Ranny graduated from Manhattanville College, Purchase, N.Y.

She returned, with Jay, to Pittsburgh and later taught advanced math to girls at Ellis School in Shadyside and calculus to students at Shady Side Academy and engineering students at the University of Pittsburgh.

The couple have three children, all in their 30s, plus three grandchildren.

• Daughter Melissa, 36, an investment banker in Chicago, works for Kraft in mergers and acquisitions. (She won’t even tell her father what she’s working on, he says.)

• Son Rob, 34, works in Pittsburgh as a principal at Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, a global firm based in Chicago, while his wife is an anaesthesiologist with UPMC.

• Son Bill, 30, works near Los Angeles as manager of youth national team administration for the U.S. Soccer Federation, developing youngsters age 13 to 19 for World Cup competition.

Soccer has legs in the Ferguson family. Jay was a soccer player in college and coached his two sons, he says. Jay also has season tickets to Steelers, Pirates and Penguins games.

He’s also a confessed car nut, having raced cars during his days at Duke. These days, he drives a Toyota Land Cruiser for commuting and a Porsche 923 GTS for fun.

In addition, he hopes to restore a 1958 Rolls Royce he inherited.

“One of the things I’ve toyed with doing in retirement is racing vintage cars,” he says, adding, with a grin, “I like cars that go fast.”

Thomas Olson can be reached at or 412-320-7854.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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