Death of an Icon

George Ball epitomizes the best of higher education. I have been privileged to have him in my life for the last 44 years. When I met him, my first year in college, I knew I had found my hero. I participated in his “cell” group, I took his classes, and I went to him for sage advice at all sorts of decision points. A rigorous thinker, yet an eternal optimist, Dr. Ball taught me about hospitality in its deepest sense.

He was a challenging teacher. Early in the semester of his “Theological Problems of Modern Man” class I got a test back with a B-. I wasn’t happy about the grade and I was especially unhappy that this person I admired so much didn’t think my work was A-quality. So I went and talked to him. I asked him to share an A-paper with me. He did and I was able to see instinctively how my work had fallen short. I left feeling good about myself and ready to expand my horizons.

When I got kicked out of the Walla Walla Symphony during my senior year, he helped me move beyond the experience and encouraged me to join the group of music students who sang madrigals on Monday nights instead.

When my parents came, he was the professor I most wanted them to meet. When I came back to campus to visit, he was the first person I sought out. He always managed to convey acceptance of who I was, even if we disagreed on something.

And the amazing thing about him was that generations of Whitman students feel the same way about him. I never felt that he had favorites – just that he was able to appreciate each person’s gifts and strengths.

As I have been processing the news of his death on January 1, 2012 at the age of 96, I realize that in my career in higher education, I have subconsciously held him up as the standard to which I aspired. Could I possibly live up to the words that are cited from his Commencement speech in 1978:
“Someone will depend upon the care with which all our work is done.
Someone will need the kindness with which all our words could be spoken.
Someone will be fulfilled by the love which all our acts might manifest.”

Indeed my own life depended on his wonderful care and his kindness. And the love I have for him has sustained me for years. That love and dedication continues to be expressed by all of us who were lucky enough to know George Ball. That vision continues to inspire me. I hope that he is riding his bicycle across the Elysian Fields with a big smile on his face.

Anne Bagnall Yardley ’71