Steve Ronfeldt '64
In memory of
Dr. George Ball
Professor, Friend, Mentor
By Steve Ronfeldt ’64
Dr. Ball’s affirming spirit has filled every nook and cranny of Whitman and its extended alumni family, young and old, for five decades. We met and talked with him on pathways, he urged us onward in performances, on stage and off, in sports and debates. He unabashedly probed into the joy and pain of our hearts and counseled us insightfully. Around a bowl of apples in his home, he held lively cell group meetings, year after year. After graduation, he followed what we did. Dr. Ball resided in the goodness of the heart. He genuinely cared about us, who we are and endeavored to be. He moved countless students beyond limiting fears and cynicism into a richer awareness of themselves and the meaning of life.
By opening hearts, Dr. Ball took a direct path into the unfolding of minds. With his law school training, he taught religion by Socratic questioning, but combined with wonderment and brilliance. He artfully stimulated debates – no answers, rights or wrongs, only more questions, paradoxes, and differing views. Probing beliefs, bringing abstract principles into everyday life, demanding rigorous analysis, and encouraging boldness and clarity, he left each of us to discover our own spiritual paths. His spirited teachings have withstood the test of time. He did not publish them. Instead, he deeply lived them. Years away, they continuously emerge in our minds at work and home, as if another consciousness is at play.
Dr. Ball shared that, after teaching his first class at Whitman, he immediately knew that he had come to the right place. Whitman and Dr. Ball were a perfect fit. His love of intelligent, sensitive students motivated him, and his love and insights benefitted us. Speaking to an alumni group in 1994, he said, “I can see that over the years my relationship with the students at Whitman has been the fundamental description of my life’s work. If my life has a justification, I suspect it will largely be found in what you and I over the years have meant to each other …”
With his compassion, George had courage. He spoke out against injustice, including the Iraq and Vietnam wars. His courage and convictions cost him two college jobs, one while protesting a loyalty oath, another while speaking out for student rights. But, over the decades, I was most impressed by a different form of courage: never giving way to cynicism, doubt or negativity. He saw firsthand the horrors of concentration camps in World War II and suffered personally from wrongs done to him, but held no anger. He had, what Paul Tillich called, the “courage to be,” a deeply life affirming courage overcoming doubt, despair and injustice. And, with that courage, he brought enduring affirmation into our lives.
George could not have done what he did for all of us, without the support and love from his wife, Nancy. In his last letters to me, he fondly said, she is my “true blessing” and “salvation.” Nancy is a real gem and the unsung heroine here. And we thank their wonderful four children for sharing their father with us.
Dr. Ball taught with beautiful imagery. One lasting image was the serenity of a Buddha like duck floating on tumultuous waves, alone on the horizon’s edge, touching an enormous, deep sea. The duck, Dr. Ball said, “’reposes in the immediate, as if it were the infinite – which it is.’” Dr. Ball lived in that image, calmly engaging in the tumultuous issues of today with an eye on the eternal edge, and a soul that touched into the sea depth of relationships with endless students. But he did not float or walk on water, nor place himself on a pedestal – he zoomed on a bicycle at 5 a.m., gathering trash for recycling. And, in his 80s and 90s, he continued to teach and counsel students. He lived with boundless energy and deep joy. Practicing what he preached, he was a truly great professor, friend, and life mentor. We now celebrate him for affirming our hearts, opening our minds, and touching our souls.