High Point policeman has a passion for patches

Dec. 08, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

You might say Lt. Al Ferguson wrote the book on North Carolina law enforcement patches.
Most people are so accustomed to seeing the patches on law enforcement officers’ uniforms, they probably don’t even notice them. But Ferguson, a veteran officer with the High Point Police Department — and the state’s premier expert on North Carolina law enforcement patches — sure notices. As a collector, he owns about 2,000 such patches that are representative of agencies across the state and across the decades. He has about 1,000 more from elsewhere.
And yes, last year he published the definitive reference guide on the subject, “NC Patch Collector: The Encyclopedia of North Carolina Law Enforcement Insignia.”
“I’ve been collecting patches all my life,” Ferguson says. “My father was in the military, so my parents would buy me military patches on base. I was probably about 5 years old at the time.”
Forty years later, Ferguson’s extensive collection includes a State Highway Patrol patch from the early 1930s (his oldest N.C. patch), a Guilford County Sheriff’s Department first-issue patch from the 1950s that’s believed to be one of fewer than a half-dozen in existence (his rarest N.C. patch), and a whole series of patches worn by the High Point Police Department through the years, just to name a few.
He has felt patches. Twill patches. Some are new and unused, while others have been worn on uniforms. Some patches just have the name of the agency the patch represents, while others have artwork of some sort. The current High Point patch, for example, includes a map of North Carolina with a star designating the city’s location within the state. Others feature eagles and other forms of wildlife — the town of Duck’s patch is illustrated with a duck, for example, while several versions of the Carolina Beach patch feature a marlin. There are also patches representing the various units within a law enforcement agency — say, for example, a K-9 patch, an Honor Guard patch and a Communications patch.
“You can get as detailed as you want when it comes to collecting patches,” Ferguson says. “I don’t get as detailed as some collectors. Some of them, if there’s one thread that’s different, they’ll collect it.”
Ferguson, 45, didn’t become a serious collector until about a decade ago, he says, but he got his first patch when he was a small boy — and he still has it. Manufactured during World War II, it’s a U.S. Navy patch representing a carrier air service unit. The unusual patch features an upright duck in a sailor’s uniform, carrying a miniature submarine on its shoulder.
“It was drawn up by Disney in the 1940s just for this unit,” Ferguson says.
After his father retired from the military, Ferguson’s interest in patches waned and wasn’t rekindled until 2004, when he went to a law enforcement school in Kentucky.
“We traded patches there,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe I could start getting back into this.’ I did, and the bug bit me really hard this time. I collected for about a year from all across the country, and then I decided if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do it right, so I decided to specialize just in North Carolina law enforcement patches.”
Once he got into that niche, he realized there was no definitive resource focusing on the North Carolina patches, so he decided to write it himself — with an assist from fellow collector Jim Thomas, a retired chief magistrate from Rockingham County who now lives in Virginia. It took them nearly six years to compile the book, which features a color photograph of every North Carolina law enforcement patch in the two men’s combined collections, as well as information about when the patches were worn.
What’s not included in the book, though, are the stories about how some of the patches were acquired — and those are the stories Ferguson loves to tell.
A good chunk of Ferguson’s collection came from a former High Point officer, the late Lt. Gordon Whitaker; Ferguson bought the patches from Whitaker’s widow after his death.
Others were purchased through eBay and other online sources, “but you have to be careful,” Ferguson says. “There are so many fakes out there, because there’s big money in patches. Fakes are ruining the hobby, so you have to know what you’re doing and who you’re dealing with.”
As for the rest of his patches, Ferguson obtained them directly from the law enforcement agencies they represent, either by visiting the agency, calling or writing a letter, or by trading patches with an officer from that agency. Ferguson bought a number of High Point patches specifically for trading, so no tax dollars have been spent on his personal hobby, he points out.
During his quest for patches — North Carolina patches and others — Ferguson has collected some interesting stories along with the patches. During his pursuit of an AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) patch, for example, he met a retired NATO pilot who gave him not only patches, but also a flight suit he had worn in combat.
“He just pulled it out and said, ‘Would you like a flight suit?’ ” Ferguson says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Another time, Ferguson was in Germany as part of a police officer exchange program, so he decided to see if he could trade patches with some of the agencies there. At one agency, he came away with a patch still sewn onto the officer’s sleeve.
“Here in the U.S., it’s very common to trade patches, but as I found out, it’s not very common over in Europe,” he says.
So when he offered the officer a swap, doing the best he could to bridge the language barrier, the German officer appeared stumped.
“He said, ‘One minute please,’ and he walked away,” Ferguson recalls. “He was gone for, like, 10 minutes, and then he finally came out and gave me this (the patch still on the sleeve), and then I realized his sleeve was gone. He had cut the sleeve off his uniform to give me a patch — I felt really bad at that point. So if you see a German police officer walking around with one sleeve, that’s my guy.”
The jewel of Ferguson’s collection, he says, is a rare patch from the police force in tiny Kotzebue, Alaska — a circa-1950s patch featuring a picture of a polar bear — which he acquired in a multi-patch trade.
“There’s only two or three of these out there,” he says. “That agency doesn’t even have one — that’s how rare they are.”
A sergeant at the Kotzebue station offered Ferguson $500 for his patch, but he turned the offer down, he says.
Ferguson also collected badges from the High Point Police Department and donated them to the agency — they’re on display in the lobby there — but patches remain his first love.
“The patches are my passion,” he says. “I enjoy the history part, and I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve met along the way. It’s a fun hobby for me.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579


To purchase a copy of Al Ferguson’s book, “NC Patch Collector: The Encyclopedia of North Carolina Law Enforcement Insignia” or to read more about it, visit www.lulu.com/spotlight/ncpatchcop.