George Ball lived his life as a good neighbor to everybody

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WALLA WALLA-- George Ball, as we all know, was a good neighbor to every man and woman he ever met. But he was especially dear to those of us fortunate enough to live close to him and his wife, Nancy, in the Fulton-Stanton-University-Brookside-Clinton streets neighborhood.

To us, George -- who died Sunday at the age of 96 -- and Nancy were the gathering spirits of the neighborhood.

For years, they opened their home every summer to welcome new residents with an annual feast. And every summer from the time he began gardening a small plot of land on Fern Avenue until this past summer, George would appear regularly at our doors with sack loads of fresh vegetables, all washed clean, to share with the neighbors.

"Take more, take more," he would say with an encouraging smile, and then ride off with a cheery "I'll be back," moving on to his next delivery.

Being a good neighbor was never just local with George. How many times early Saturday or Sunday mornings we saw him come rocketing out of the alley on his bike, off on his rounds to pick up empty aluminum cans, first on the Whitman campus, then throughout the neighborhood in an ever-widening quest, so that eventually you might see him anywhere in the city, miles from home, picking up cans.

And then later that day, we would listen to the familiar ring of George out behind his house, flattening cans with a mallet, one by one. For George and Nancy, being a good neighbor was part of being a citizen of the world, a duty to care for the planet itself, to make it a bit more habitable, and to help sustain the land that gives us sustenance, bounty and beauty.

No doubt George himself was sustained by the love and strength of his loving wife and his family.

One of the last times I saw George out in the front yard, he was helping Nancy clean up after she had raked leaves into the street. I watched him as he ever so slowly, ever so carefully, bent down to pick up a few remaining leaves, first one, and then another.

This is what George liked to call, in his self-deprecating way, "making small gestures." He made a million of them in his life, a lifetime of "small gestures" that added up to a miracle of love, compassion and faith in the human community.

George passed from us during the season of Christmastide, and so it was impossible not to be mindful of how much he embodied the essence of the Christmas message -- of "peace on Earth to men of good will." George was not a Pollyanna or Pangloss who thought this was "the best of all possible worlds." From his experience, he knew better. But he never failed to act on the firm possibility of a better world. He was a man of peace who made peace wherever he went and with whomever he met, because he was a man of "good will" whose love and generosity seemed boundless.

And he was ever a bringer of "glad tidings." You always felt better after encountering George, better about yourself, and better about life too. He had an infectious goodness about him, a spirit of hope without shallow optimism that was true to his nature and to our best nature, a spirit that, once you knew him, could not be denied.

So go in peace, good and gentle neighbor.

We will miss George, but we will all remember how he and Nancy taught us -- and continue to teach us -- the meaning of community, and be better off for the lessons learned.

John F. Desmond is a professor emeritus of English at Whitman College and a neighbor of George and Nancy Ball for 35 years.

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