George Ball was one of the most loving people I have ever met.
George was my freshman advisor. From the day we met in 1980, when I first walked through his office door until the last time I saw him when I walked through the always-open front door of his and Nancy’s house on Fulton just last year, George has continued to be my advisor, counselor, and friend.
I minored in religion largely because of George. He invited me to be part of his cell group, but my travel schedule for speech and debate made that difficult, and he was no longer my official advisor once I declared an English major. If I wanted to continue the always-stimulating chats with George, I decided I had to take all his classes, so I did – Intro to Religion, Christian Ethics…. I remember in particular his discussion of the various forms of love (caritas, agape, eros) and the need to integrate them in a fully realized life. They were great classes – almost Platonic dialogues – in which everyone was encouraged to stake out a position and support it in an effort to find one’s personal truth (unlike Plato’s predetermined Truth). When I worked at the Writing Center, I could always tell one of George students – they were the ones pulling their hair out because they were used to getting good grades on papers by mimicking what the teacher said, but George was a professor who really wanted to know what YOU thought, how you had arrived at your conclusions, and what impact those conclusions might have on how you lived your life. Students who were used to studying what would be on the test found out that they had to truly learn – that the best education is self-education with a trusted guide.
When I got married to Phyllis Hunt in 1984, George Ball officiated. At our request, he performed a Christ-free ceremony (there was a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians – you know the one – but also from the Bhagavad Gita and poets) and everyone loved him: my family, Phyllis, her family (who weren’t at all religious, but anyone who met George quickly appreciated that he was a loving and sincere man who didn’t care whether you were religious or not as long as you were thoughtful about ultimate questions), the many Whitties in attendance, all the guests really.
When I subsequently came out, got divorced, and met the man of dreams (Juan Battle), I dragged Juan from the east coast to Walla Walla so he could get the George Ball Seal of Approval, which he did. George said that we should always celebrate love in whatever form it takes. I said that my parents had yet to develop that enlightened attitude. He said, “The time will come when they are older and realize that they need you more than you need them. Then they’ll come around.” He was, of course, right.
Every Christmas, we would exchange long notes, and every time I came through Walla Walla, I would see George and Nancy if they were in town. Juan and George would talk about how to increase the diversity of the Whitman student body; Nancy and I would discuss our mutual love of travel.
During the most recent visit last summer, the short term memory loss that George had complained about for some time was finally evident, but Nancy helped him focus (as she always did), and there was certainly nothing wrong with his long term memory. George kept coming back to the efforts I made, with help from George and various Sigma Chis, to look after our ailing friend and brother Nas (Mohammed Nasir Khan) until he died from the genetic disease that forced him to leave Whitman. George continued his theme of celebrating love however it manifests, saying “You were a true friend and brother to Nas, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Nancy had to remind George, as she often did because there was not such think as a “short” chat with George, that we had gone on talking for so long that it was past time to say goodbye. As we parted George’s last words to me were, “I’ve forgotten a lot of things, but I’ll never forget you.” Once again, George knew exactly the right thing to say because he always spoke from the heart, and in return I say I will never forget George Ball and the lessons he taught about the many forms of love.
Then: Mike Bennett ’84
Sigma Chi from Pullman, WA
Now: Michael Bennett
Professor of English
Long Island University