Another Man Who Planted Trees

“For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.”
-Jean Giono, "The Man Who Planted Trees"

I hope that it would please Dr. Ball to know that one of the first things I thought of at his passing was a book, as we spent so many hours discussing books in his office, in Senior Colloquium, and in the cell group he and Nancy hosted in their home.

In the familiar tale "The Man Who Planted Trees", Jean Giono recounts the story of Elzeard Bouffier, a simple shepherd living in pre-WWI Provence, France. Each day when he takes his sheep to pasture, Bouffier uses his trusty staff and carefully selected seeds to plant a few trees in what is initially a barren landscape. He begins with acorns to produce a stand of oaks, then investigates how best to grow beeches, birch trees and other varieties to produce undergrowth. Soon water is flowing in once-dry creeks and the local village begins to enjoy a measure of prosperity. Over the course of his lifetime, Bouffier reforests an entire valley, which in turn provides for the comfort, happiness and renewal of its residents.

The luminous and exceptional spirit of Dr. Ball was certainly that kind of force in the Whitman community, and it was my honor and privilege to receive so much of his light in my life. As a student, I went by his office almost weekly, on my way to my mailbox when I was an R.A. or en route to or from class. He had the same greeting ritual: rounding his desk to offer a big hug and a grandfatherly peck on the cheek, followed by the assurance that his day has been made so much better with my visit. (I know he said this to everyone, but that was what was so remarkable about him. He meant it, every time ­– with everyone.)

I would always steal a curious look at the books on his desk and ask which ones I should read. He’d inquire about how things were going with coursework, but being an incurable romantic was also quick to ask what was new in that department, ­­­offering encouragement or suggestions. He assured me that one of the most important indicators of long-term compatibility, aside from the obvious issue of values, was whether or not two people would be satisfied with each other’s conversation for the rest of their lives. (So far, so good!) He never failed to see the good in people and point out their potential.

I admired his ability to find the common ground in the spiritual teachings of world religions. He not only articulated but demonstrated on a daily basis that love, compassion, respect and service to others are the ingredients for a civil society and world community.

Dr. Ball was also a guiding force for Tony, who struggled with the decision of what to do after graduation: teach for the Whitman-in-China program or take his physics degree and plunge into engineering school. After regaling him with stories of his own travels and experiences in China with Nancy, Dr. Ball encouraged Tony to take a chance on the adventure, which turned out to be a formative and life-changing experience.

When Tony and I got engaged, I only had one absolute regarding our wedding: I wanted Dr. Ball to marry us. His words to us on that day – “Love is a decision, not a feeling” – have grown more meaningful over time and continue to enlighten and challenge us.

I most recently saw George and Nancy last summer, standing in a sunlit field of blueberry bushes as we waited in line to weigh our newly picked bounty. I was delighted to see him and hardly surprised, as his numerous activities on and off-campus hardly seemed to diminish as he aged. One can’t help but be inspired by a 96-year-old who continued to bike to his office, recycling cans along the way, seeking fellowship with anyone he came across.

Our seven-year-old daughter, without any coaching, regularly picks up trash on walks around our neighborhood. I smile and think of Dr. Ball almost every time it happens. I’m grateful that echoes of his spirit of service, activism and generosity are present in my life and that of my family.

The words Jean Giono used to describe the man who planted trees seem appropriate to describe Dr. Ball: “He was one of God’s athletes.” The lives he touched so deeply are like many generations of trees, now planted around the world. I hope that we, his “forest,” reflect both the light and the contemplative shade of his presence for those who come into our lives.

Megan Blair-Cabasco ’92