Drafted into the Army while still in high school, and soon enlisting in the Navy, Sharold Ferris served his country for more than three decades before retiring in 2003. He has since finished a college degree and earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate while working 40-hour weeks as a Texas corrections officer.
The 68-year-old works at Green Bay Jail, part of the Tarrant County, Texas, prison system. He helps manage about 190 inmates, and the prison houses more than 1,500.
“We keep a vigilant watch and try to keep these individuals safe,” he said during a recent Hownikan phone interview from his Fort Worth, Texas, home. “There’s a regimentation that you have to go by, and protocol is far more stringent than in civilian life. The formula that works best is being firm but being fair; and fair is probably the strongest thing that I got from the military.”
His instinct, faith in God and the deep ties to his Native American ancestry and culture guide him. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member is descended from the Vieux and Bruno families. He also has ties to the Wamego families. He said he was a relative to Jim Thorpe, who is a cousin.
Of all his accomplishments, his proudest is “staying alive while I was in the Navy,” he said. “I always had God with me; I prayed, and I put a lot of faith into that.”
As part of his advanced training, he became an aircrew survival-equipment technician, “where I learned how to jump out of a perfectly good airplane and maintain survival equipment.”
He also studied underwater demolition and aviation support before landing in Vietnam.
“We loaded bombs day and night, and sent the fighter jets out and recovered them,” he said of his work on the USS Hancock Aircraft Carrier (CV-19). “Our job was in supporting the ground troops in the country.”
It was perilous and deadly. He cross-trained in the Master at Arms field as a senior enlistee, writing syllabuses for new troops that trained them on inter-works of the job in the Navy. Thirteen men died while at sea.
“Life on a carrier is dangerous,” he said.
From there, he spent a year on a destroyer out of Norfolk, Virginia, before a four-year hitch with Patrol Squadron 60. He searched for and tracked submarines in places like Japan and Korea.
Eventually, he came home and requested to serve as a recruiter, where he hoped to expand his opportunities for advancement. He worked out of the Navy’s Great Lakes training center in Gary, Indiana, for six years. By the end of that assignment, he ranked No. 3 of 2,700 recruiters in the nation.
By 1994, he was in California, supervising a work center supporting more than 300 aircrew. While there, he also trained with the Marines for a special combat antiterrorist unit and participated with security in Los Angeles after 1994’s Northridge earthquake. More than 60 people were killed and 9,000 injured in the magnitude 6.7 temblor.
On Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it neared Earth, killing its seven crew. Ferris led a solemn task for his government and NASA, piecing together and recording debris as experts tried to determine what happened.
“We had a hangar with blacked-out windows that we did a roving perimeter check 24-hours a day. There was some pretty top-secret stuff in there that we had to catalog,” he said. “We knew that when you laid all the debris down, to lay it out in the order or the form of the shuttle. We also had to make sure none of it walked away.”
The project took nine months, “every day, 12-hour days,” Ferris said. “That’s a lot. In my position as a supervisor, a 12-hour day was just a start. There were times I worked around-the-clock.”
Later that year, he deployed to the Iraq War for six months. His son Carl, now 37, served as a Marine for eight years before they both retired in 2003. The father and son served in Iraq at the same time, “but he was on the front line more than I was — he was clear over in Fallujah,” Ferris said.
Ferris retired Oct. 30, 2003.
Ask Ferris, and he will tell you: “I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life,” he said, then laughed.
At age 17 in Buchanan, Michigan, he worked in his family’s business — a slaughterhouse. Through the years, he also worked as a long-haul semi-tractor trailer driver, a volunteer firefighter, a deputy sheriff, a salesman, a teepee-maker and an inventor, among other things.
Decades ago, he learned to make teepees using an industrial sewing machine in his garage and sold them to campgrounds, resorts and day care centers. When the military moved him to California, he headed to the marinas and repaired sails and seats. He also sewed formal dresses, suit coats, pants, jackets and even leather bathing suits.
Since retiring and accepting a job as a corrections officer 14 years ago, he has also earned master’s degrees in business and criminal justice, and hopes to eventually find a role with the Indian Gaming Commission, investigating crime.
“All of that is because I am a Tribal member,” he said. “I’ve known that I’ve been American Indian forever and that’s (IGC) something that I perhaps could do to get in and support the American Indian people.”
In 2016, he completed his doctoral degree in public policy administration. Through the 10 1/2-year trek, Tribal scholarships and the Veterans Administration Education Benefit program helped support his studies. If the Indian Gaming Commission gig does not happen, he said, he is qualified to teach college courses in five subjects, including math.
“I would be extremely valuable, I think” he said.
In the meantime, he and his wife Julie of 33 years enjoy their new puppy, a toy Australian shepherd named Alli-Rose Ferris, nickname ARF.
Their son also brings his daughter over, and they all spend time together. She turns 12 in May.
“She’s in charge, and she’s got all the answers,” he said, then laughed. “And we think that’s just fine.”