George Ball was a – perhaps the – defining element of my Whitman education. I decided to pursue a career in academics in large part because of the model he presented of an engaged, caring, but also insightful and demanding professor. I didn’t follow in his footsteps, spending most of my career at a large research university rather than at a small college as was my initial objective. And, despite the number of students I taught over the years, I know I didn’t have the personal impact that Dr. Ball had on generations of students. Insights into morals and ethics and religion that I learned from him have informed my life for the almost 50 years since I sat in his classes on ethics and religion (though I can’t say I always chose the decision his teachings would suggest.) It may have been his training in the law that brought a level of analytical clarity and rigor to aspects of religion that particularly appealed to me. His consistent demand that students think clearly, that they be precise and critical irrespective of the subject matter, was certainly a personal credo in my own teaching.
It is a matter of some regret that while we kept up over the years with annual Christmas letters, I never actually sat down and talked with him since he presided over my wife’s and my wedding, nearly 47 years ago. He graciously traveled from Walla Walla to Palo Alto to officiate at an event that probably took no longer than 10 minutes. But he obviously knew that his presence meant a great deal to us. This generosity of spirit defined George Ball and will surely be a major part of his legacy.
It’s odd that one of my most telling memories came from a report of a conversation at my wedding in which I didn’t participate. Jim Sundeen ’66, my best man, had a chance to share thoughts about careers and life’s directions with Dr. Ball after the festivities. Jim was starting medical school with all the attendant worries and concerns, and Dr. Ball pondered his own situation, questioning whether a life spent mentoring and ministering to the various afflictions of students at an elite liberal arts college somehow “measured up” in terms of the ethical demands of his faith, at least when contrasted to the kinds of misery and hardship that he might address in other places far less comfortable and agreeable than Whitman College. I think it was a telling mark of the man that he seriously entertained such thoughts, and that he shared them with a former student. I hope he made peace with his doubts. The generations of students whose lives he enriched, and whose decisions were informed by what they learned from him, surely stand as a monument to a life devoted to others, to a man whose actions and example radiate from Walla Walla to everywhere his former students find themselves.
Tom Church ’67