55 PLUS - Professor emeritus recalls 42-year Whitman career

George Ball is 95. The well-loved teacher still rides his bicycle to and from his office.

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"You can't control what happens in your life but you can control your response to it," laughed George Ball, in his basement office at Whitman College. The retired professor of biblical literature emeritus taught religion at Whitman College for 42 years and retired eight years ago. He's appreciative of the college allowing him to keep his office in Memorial Hall; it helps him stay connected to the students. "I still know a few of the present students but I often have former students drop by."

On May 23 this year, he turned 95. The well-loved professor is still riding his bicycle to and from his office. "It's so nice to have this base of operations. Students can always drop by," he said.

He recalled that his first office at Whitman when he came here in 1960 was in a "barracks-like" building where Cordiner Hall now stands. "You could see all the unpainted boards and you could hear everything," he laughed.

"But then, that first day, I got into my first class. I always had large classes of about 30-35 people. I read them a story about a religious challenge, to get them to talk about it. At first I had four hands in the air, then I had 16 people who wanted to talk. Then they were all wanting to talk. I was completely forgotten. It was wonderful."

He had been recruited from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. "I was a teacher of religion at a religious school, the University is affiliated with the United Methodist Church." At the time there was no teaching of religion at Whitman College, "I got an extraordinary break in several ways. I had no boss, no one to answer to. And nobody had any idea what would be taught in a ‘religion' class so I just repeated the courses I had at Yale. It was purely academic, there was no objective for them to become religious."

"Coming to Whitman was a salvation," Ball said. "Usually when you teach religion, people are after you. I just taught it as academic. I had complete freedom. If you question religion, fine. If you become religious, fine. It's up to them."

"In those large classes I had a lot of centers of opinion, easier to engage in conversation. I could set my own rules. There was nobody around trying to shut you down."

The excitement of the new job inspired great change in the lives of Ball and wife Nancy, who moved from Minnesota to the area for his job, about 1,200 miles from relatives.

"We came here with four little children. We were so delighted with Whitman, we had forgotten to check out the public schools and were afraid," he said. But it turned out they were very pleased with the education their children received in the area schools. "All four of our children did well academically." They have all gone on to professional positions. One son is still in the area working as a medical doctor. And they have traveled a bit to visit their children in other areas of the country.

"The job at Whitman was by far the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the break of a lifetime." It was all due to an amazing series of events, chance meetings and encounters - what he describes as "coincidental factors."

Ball savors his life, his love of family, students and his accomplishments. His wife is 12 years younger than he is, a concern for him at first. "I didn't think she'd accept me" when he asked her to marry him. After they had decided to marry, they ended up spending a summer apart while she worked on a project and he finished his doctorate at Yale. "We wrote a letter to each other every day," he said. "Since I saved all of them, now I read one every day. She has been a constant dream. She's the real source of our children's success. She's wonderful, really deeply involved in the affairs of the community. She's very gentle but she's very able."

As far as hobbies, he said his real joy was tennis. "My friend Bob Burgess, then tennis coach - he was very good. My job was to keep the ball in play long enough so he could get to it. He was a true gentleman," Ball said.

"I was born in 1915; I never thought I'd make it this far. But my parents lived to a combined age of 200," he laughed. According to Ball, he has slowed down a bit. He has some memory issues he's working with, but he and his wife move forward as a team. "She's the one functioning, I'm the onlooker," he said. "What I would wish for others is that they would have the kinds of opportunities come their way that have come to me."

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com .

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