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Author writes about those who have made a difference, despite prejudice

By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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Sun City Lincoln Hills resident Jeri Chase Ferris is an archeologist, traveling around the world to dig up her findings. However, it is not dinosaur bones and ancient relics the award-winning author unearths but facts including letters and birth certificates she digs up. This is because Ferris writes biographies for children and young adults, which mainly center on minorities. “Jeri is a very dedicated, enthusiastic, and talented writer,” said friend Marilyn Clark, who has known Ferris since 2005. “I think they (the books) are a must for anybody interested in history and good wording.” Ferris, who taught elementary school in the inner city of Los Angeles for 30 years, said she started writing biographies in the 1980s to provide children with “people who’d really made a difference for the kids to read about.” “The goal would be (to feature) a person who has made a difference for the better, a person who made the difference in spite of prejudice,” Ferris said. Her first book, “Go Free or Die,” which was published in 1988, tells the story of Harriet Tubman. Other historical figures Ferris has written about include Sojourner Truth and Marian Anderson, who was a black singer. Ferris said her favorite part of writing the biographies is the research, because when she was a child, “one of the things I wanted to be was an archeologist.” Her research has taken her throughout the country, and even the world, as she has visited the Arctic, Russia, Utah, Mississippi and Washington, D.C., just to name a few of the places she has gone. Ferris has also sleuthed facts previously unknown. While doing the research for “What I Had Was Singing: The Story of Marian Anderson,” she found Anderson’s only birth certificate, which had a different date of birth than had been previously published. This resulted in the Encyclopedia Britannica having to change Anderson’s birth date in their publications, according to Ferris. She has also talked to the great-great-grandson of Noah Webster, a dictionary author. “It’s like touching history,” said Ferris, of talking to Webster’s great-great-grandson. The biography about Webster should be published in 2011 and another book about the siege of Leningrad, “Surrounded,” is being shopped around to a publisher. Another interest of Ferris’ is Russian culture. “Writing is a huge part of my life, my career and a huge part of my life is the Soviet Union,” Ferris said. “Half of my life (has been) devoted since 1970 to Soviet Union and Russian things.” Her late husband, Tom Ferris, taught Russian studies at Beverly Hills High School and took his class to Russia during the Christmas holiday in 1970. Ferris joined her husband and his class that year. “Here we are in Red Square, at midnight, and it’s snowing,” Ferris recalled. “The bells began playing, began to bong and the soldiers came goose-stepping out of the tower for the changing of the guard,” Ferris said. “There was something too mystical and magical about the experience, and ever since that moment, Tom and I (were) magnetized to anything to do with Russian culture.” Ferris and her husband started collecting items relating to the Stalin era of the Soviet Union, including books, paintings and porcelain figures. The couple collected more than 10,000 items, which Ferris said “is unmatched in the Western world.” Tom Ferris died in 2003, and Jeri Ferris said, she worked for two years after he died, cataloguing and organizing the collection.” “Tom’s dream was that they’d be available to the whole world, not just the United States,” Ferris said. She “explored all around the country” to find a place for the collection, finally deciding to donate them to the Slavic Department at the University of Southern California. “I kept a few precious items,” Ferris said. Ferris and her late husband have two sons, and six grandchildren. She has been living in Lincoln since 2005, and said she wanted to move to Lincoln because she wanted “the big sky, prairie, and to be in the country,” much like Lincoln, Nebraska, where she grew up. “I think she’s excellent, a wonderful writer,” Joan Arnest, who is a friend of Ferris, said. “She’s a wonderful friend, a very good, caring person, and she would do anything for anybody.”