When Ron Ball '61 died very suddenly last June while on a fishing trip in Alaska, his family and friends were stunned.
The grief and emptiness felt is slowly giving way to wonderful memories and a celebration of Ron's life. Those who knew him best remembered him for his ties to Catawba College and made gifts to the college in his memory. There were so many memorials, in fact, that an endowed scholarship was established at Catawba in Ron's memory.
Ron's widow, Darlene Landis Ball '62 who met her husband at Catawba, says that the Ron Ball Memorial Endowed Scholarship is "a lasting and memorable way to honor him at a place that he truly loved."
Ron Ball at Catawba College
Ron grew up extremely poor in the mountains of West Virginia, according to Darlene. "The out for anybody who wanted out," she explains, "was athletics." Ron, as if to ensure his ticket out, started playing football when he was only six years old. His athleticism paid off for him later when he received scholarship offers from the University of South Carolina and Wake Forest University.
He went to USC to try out but a coach there (Bill England '54) told him he was too small for the team and referred him to Clyde Biggers, then head coach at Catawba. Ron was a good fit for Catawba's team and was awarded a full scholarship to attend. He played baseball, basketball and football at Catawba, lettering in all three, and majored in business administration. Ron grew to respect and value his professors, particularly Professor Millard Wilson, and met and fell in love with a co-ed, Darlene Landis.
"We met when I was a sophomore and he was a junior," Darlene remembers. "I was a geek and he was an athlete — I had a lot to learn about football in order to date the quarterback. I had no athletic ability at all — actually got kicked off the intramural volleyball team after one practice. However, we were a good match and he asked me to marry him on the front steps of Zartman Hall on a sunny spring afternoon."
During Darlene's senior year at Catawba while Ron was working as a superintendent at Dan River Mills, the two became engaged. The occasion was a dinner in the campus student center right before the Christmas holidays. "As SGA president," Darlene recalls, "I had to give a talk at that formal occasion. Just before I was to get up to give my talk, he took my hand and put a ring on my finger. Surprised to say the least ... I just remember getting up with my heart beating very fast, twisting the ring around my finger and wishing everyone a safe trip home and a good holiday - short speech." The couple, who married the summer after Darlene graduated, was married for 46 years when Ron died.
Reflecting on Ron's time at Catawba, Darlene explains: "He knew that he had gotten his start at a better life at Catawba, that the folks there had given him a chance. He wasn't necessarily academically gifted, but he learned a great deal and was very successful in several careers — as a businessman, a coach and a teacher."
Remembering Ron Ball
After he graduated from Catawba, Ron worked briefly for Dan River Mills and served in the National Guard of Virginia. He later earned his master's degree from N.C. A&T State University. In 1963, he was named president of Croft Business College in Greensboro. He left that position to teach and coach football at Northwest Guilford High School and later at Page High School, both in Guilford County. In 1977, he partnered with two friends, Bob Cromer '60 and Jim Branch (a Clemson grad), to start Learning Environments, Inc., a company specializing in providing furniture, equipment and athletic seating to school systems throughout North Carolina. He and Jim sold the company to two younger employees in 2005 but he continued to work part time, fully retiring in December of 2007 just six months before his death. He was most proud that in their 30 years in business they never had an employee quit and that the relationships built made it like a family.
"Mr. Ball was an outstanding man and an inspiration to me," Westmoore Elementary School Principal Bruce Williams wrote to Darlene after Ron's death. "He came to our school many times and was always pleasant, positive and encouraging. He will be greatly missed by all who had the honor of knowing him."
"A better friend you could not find," Ron's friend David Setzer of Salisbury says. "He was completely without pretension, no ego or false modesty. He was able to argue, defend his points and stand his ground, but not in an ugly way. He also was completely comfortable in his own skin; knew what he could do or not do and was fully aware of his abilities and, conversely, his limitations.
"Ron was a literalist. What he said was his bond. What you said was your bond. Period. He was a throwback to the days when agreements and decisions were sealed with a handshake or a sign. He valued friendship above all, an attitude and approach that I also tried to emulate. I was always amused by his regard for me and was flattered by his deference to me on issues where he thought I had something to add," Setzer continues. "We came together because our wives were college classmates and friends — a relationship that still exists. We wound up as godparents to each other's children."
"Ronnie was Ronnie. He had a way of making people feel important and always welcome. He would talk to the third shift supervisor or a CEO in the same way, always with a smile that made everyone feel at ease," wrote Wanda Ball, Darlene's assistant of 15 years, in a note after Ron's death. "If I had to describe Ronnie in one word, it would be generous. He seemed to always give and never expect anything in return. He had a way of hugging that you knew he meant it."
Ray Oxendine '61, Ron's roommate at Catawba remembers: "We met our freshman year and I believe we were the only two that played football, basketball and baseball that year. We just hit it off from the very beginning and chose to be roommates for the rest of the time we were at Catawba. Even though I am the youngest of six boys I never had a brother that I could share things with (because of age difference) so that brother became Ronnie Ball. I wasn't near as good an athlete as Ronnie would tell people I was –I remember I hit a homerun when we played East Carolina and he came home with me the next day and was describing that homerun to my daddy like Mickey Mantle had been at bat.
"As an athlete - he was 5'8 or 5'9 at that time 165 lbs — small for a college football player - but he was probably the toughest physical and mental individual that I ever came across in college football. He played quarterback and he took a terrific beating. Several times I didn't think he'd ever get up, but I never remember him leaving a game because of an injury. He was able to stand in the pocket until the last second to deliver a pass, knowing he was going to get steamrolled the moment he released the pass. One year against Elon on homecoming he ran a kickoff back for a touchdown - and he couldn't run! It took forever but he ended up scoring the touchdown.
"We had that brotherly friendship for the next 50 years. We talked at least a couple of times a month. Always felt the same — always felt we really hadn't left each other," Oxendine continues. "A special thing — I've been in the hospital a number of times over the years and every time Ronnie showed up. I know especially a couple of times that Ronnie talked his way into the recovery room — I don't know what he told the people at the desk, but Ronnie Ball showed up in the recovery room. I miss him and think about him almost every day. "
Ron's nephew Fred McElmurray wrote this about his Uncle Ronnie after his death: "You could not find one person to say a negative or derogatory remark about him. Everyone loved him. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to say no one had anything bad to say about you?"
"He joked that he was my bag carrier," Darlene says of Ron. "It didn't bother him at all that I was successful in my own right. He was very self-assured and encouraged me to reach for whatever goal I wanted. He was often the only male spouse at my conferences and meetings and he enjoyed it. At the meetings of one of the industry groups that I belonged to he would play bridge with the wives and participate in the often hilarious skits that they created, like when they dressed up in tights and black garbage bags stuffed with paper and danced and sang "California Raisins" with Ron leading about six women onto the stage. It brought the house down.
"He was a tremendous role model to our children and to the many young people who were so often in our home," Darlene explains. "He was fantastic father and often said that after I birthed the children, he could do the rest — which was true. He was comfortable cutting the fingernails of a newborn, braiding Kristin's hair, helping with homework, being the Girl Scout ‘mom' as well as the Cub Scout ‘dad' or doing whatever was needed. He never tried to direct his children into any particular career or lifestyle, he just assured them that he was there for them no matter what. Ron loved his children beyond measure."
Kevin Broughton remembers Ron this way: "Ron's son Vaden and I have been best friends since the 4th grade, and with my father absent, Ron acted as a surrogate father to me. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had a man as devoted to his family, honest, hard working, and humble as Ron Ball to emulate growing up. I do not think I fully appreciated it until I became an adult and found myself in difficult situations, under pressure, and in need of guidance that simply asking myself "What would Mr. Ball do?" (I never called him Ron) would lead me in the right direction. Whatever success I find in life, there is no doubt I can attribute much of it to the endless generosity of the Balls and to Ron in particular for providing a model on which to guide my development as a man, a husband, and hopefully one day as a father.
"One of my favorite memories from childhood is simply sitting on the dock at their house on High Rock Lake, saying not a word, the sound of our fishing rods casting out and slowly reeling in. To someone who grew up without a father, amidst the stresses of a single parent household, the great calm that I derived from those moments on the dock continues to help anchor my thoughts and give me strength," Broughton concludes.
"Ron was satisfied and happy with his life. He was a guy who saw value in every single person. He was the same to everyone no matter who you were, how much you were worth or what you had done. A sincere ‘I love you' along with a great big hug was his signature and he was always pleased when he could get that in return from those who did not find that a comfortable thing to do at first," says Darlene. "He had open heart surgery in 2002 with five bypasses and had been a diabetic for over 20 years but most people did not know this — it was never part of his conversation. He just kept going."
Darlene continues, "Our travel group friends remember his ready assistance to anyone struggling along a path, his calmness and patience, his awe at the wonders of the world and his generosity with his Black Jack at the end of an exhilarating but exhausting day. When there was a weight limit on luggage Ron would pack his spirits first and then whatever clothes he could get in. He always favored the children and the school visits on these trips and in the third world countries he left as much of his clothes as he could spare, always with money to have them washed before they were given away. He used to say — "hard to imagine! a poor old boy from West Virginia in Tibet", or Egypt or wherever we were.
"Ron would have wanted to acknowledge his gratitude for his relationships with many people but particularly his golfing buddies of 30 some years - the Sweet Swingers, his two best high school friends Ronnie and Cy, his niece and nephew and their families, the members of our dinner group of 25 years, our neighbors the Hewitts, Barbara '62 and Dave Setzer, Sam '61 and Kate Morrow, Ray Oxendine '61 and his business partner, Jim.
June 24th marks the one year anniversary of Ron Ball's death, but the cultivated memories live on in stories his friends and families tell of his time among them.
"Ronnie cultivated his friendships, sometimes with unselfish generosity, but most often with words spoken succinctly and to the point, and deeds done quietly," David Setzer said of his friend during the eulogy he delivered.
"Sometimes you just miss the presence of an individual," said Catawba Senior Vice President Tom Childress. "You miss them not being at an event or a game they always attended. Ron had that kind of a presence. He was a quiet, loyal man who loved his college and his family and friends and his life. That's what we all should remember about him and hopefully that's what future Catawba students will know about him through his scholarship."
In addition to wife Darlene, Ron is survived by daughter Kristin, son Vaden, and daughter-in-law Melissa. Melissa says of Ron, "Although often a man of few words, you always knew that he spoke from the heart."
Friends and classmates may contribute to Ron Ball Memorial Endowed Scholarship at Catawba College by contacting the Development Office at (704) 637-4394.