If, today, we were to summon up adjectives to characterize George Ball, I suspect that, collectively, we would generate terms such as: caring, forgiving, respectful, tolerant, neighborly, generous, and so forth. All of these terms are altogether true, but I am not persuaded that they do complete justice to George.
In addition to all of the virtues suggested by these adjectives, George was a man of profound conviction, of ideals he quite literally embodied, of beliefs for which he was willing to sacrifice much. Today, I would like to tell a brief story in order to recall this aspect of the character of George Ball:
In 1951, George held an appointment as the chaplain of the University of Denver. At that time, Colorado had in place a statute requiring all educators in the state of Colorado, whether in public or private institutions, to sign a loyalty oath swearing allegiance to the constitutions of the state of Colorado and the United States. The law had been in place for thirty years. Yet, according to newspaper accounts, no one to that date had refused to sign it. George, though, did refuse.
To explain his refusal, George composed and submitted an eleven page letter to the vice-chancellor of the University; and, to do honor to George Ball, today, I would like to quote three passages from that letter:
First passage: “It seems to me that requiring a test oath is not an illustration of American tradition but a denial of that tradition. The uniqueness and center of the American political philosophy is that ours is a government which does not coerce the loyalty of its citizens. Any government which compels the loyalty of its citizens is not democratic. That which sustains a democracy is something found in the heart; it is the loyalty of the heart to the belief that man is most truly himself when he is free.”
Second passage: “Loyalty sternly confided to one country alone, which this oath imposes, competes with and ultimately contradicts the religious principle that a Christian is required to bear an equal loyalty and love to all people everywhere. One sees the difficulty if he rephrases the words of Jesus as “Thou shalt love thy American neighbor as thyself.” Such a change destroys the meaning, the basis, and the spirit of Jesus’ words: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself… This,” George continued, “expresses something all men feel somewhere deep within: that all of us came from the same source or Creator (however defined) and that we have no reason to feel that this Creator has any preference for any of us. “
And, finally, the third passage in which George posed this question: “The university must be a place of full and free inquiry else it degenerates into a propaganda arm for the government or anyone else who controls it. Is there to be no college in America where full and unhampered discussion is permitted, where all postulates may be examined and challenged? If loyalty to a democracy does not come from the free mind freely functioning and aware of its freedom, where does it come from?”
Recognizing the consequences of his refusal to sign this oath, toward the end of this letter, George wrote: “Surely one of the arts of living is to know when to compromise and when to stand firm.” Knowing that this was such a moment, one day after George submitted this letter, he resigned his position as chaplain at the University of Denver.
This was the act of a man who knew he could not bend without fundamentally compromising the beliefs that were etched into the seams of his soul. It was the act of a man who belonged, in the best possible sense of the term, to the academy. For it was in the academy, whether that be at the University of Denver, or at Oberlin College, where George also managed to lose his job as a result of his participation in anti-war activities, or at Whitman College, where we should be proud that he finally found his rightful home, it was in the academy that George felt most completely at home and to which devoted his life.
Let me close, if I may, on a more personal note. A number of years ago, I cannot remember just how many, I ran into George at a Whitman social event. At that event, I said something to George that, in retrospect, was perhaps inappropriate but, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to say. On that day, I expressed gratitude to George for the many occasions in the past when he had ministered to the Whitman community by presiding over gatherings such as this; for the many occasions on which he had offered us solace to us in response to a loss, whether of a student, a faculty member, or a member of the Whitman staff; for the many afternoons, much like today, when he had acknowledged our sorrow, but, at the same time, assured us that we would persevere.
On that day, and with deep appreciation for Adam Kirtley, I told George that I could not imagine how anyone other than he could preside over the memorial service that we, one day, would hold in order to recall his life and legacy. In a quintessentially George sort of way, as I recall, was this: “Never mind, Whitman will get by just fine in my absence.” I’m not sure we’ll get by just fine in his absence, but we will get by, no matter how much we feel the loss of someone who taught us much about “the arts of living,” of how to live a human life fully and well.