25 September 1926 – 12 January 2019
There are those amongst us who, through their words and actions, radiate strength, courage, compassion, and generosity, causing a positive ripple to spread across the communities they touch, increasing the good in the world, and casting light against the darkness. George Eugene Ball was such a man.
When I was a teenager, my parents would visit our grandparents, and on the way would drop my brother and I off at the University of Guelph library, where we would happily spend a Saturday or a Sunday pouring through the shelves of beetle and spider books, photocopying as many of them as we could. It was in this library that I discovered Ross Arnett’s Beetles of the United States, and, inspired, purchased a copy of that tome. One chapter in particular captured my attention, about Carabidae, written by George E. Ball of the University of Alberta. As a 16-year-old, on 13 December 1974, I decided to reach out to Dr. Ball, in case he might be able to answer my queries about some of the ground beetles I was finding in southern Ontario. I wrote him a four-page letter, but did not expect a response – a famous professor would surely have more important things to do than write a teenager far across the country. To my great surprise and delight, a few weeks later I received an eight-page letter in response, answering my questions in detail, and providing me with the names and addresses of many other carabid systematists to whom I could write.
Decades later, when I wrote a letter telling George how profoundly his letter affected me, and how much it inspired me, and thanking him for it, he replied that the best way to thank him would be to respond similarly when a 16-year-old wrote me asking me questions about her or his favorite beetles.
This typified George. He was a man of principle, duty-bound to serve the causes he believed in, including the people who were part of his community. He would have viewed helping me as a necessity, as he was committed to educating youth and encouraging those who might engage in the honourable cause of discovering and documenting our planet’s biodiversity.
George sought to deflect attention away from himself. He did not want to be viewed as a grand master, separate and above the rest of us. In later years he reluctantly allowed us to celebrate his achievements, not because he wanted to bask in the glory, but rather because it allowed him to see old friends and hear about their discoveries.
George was virtually egoless when it came to science. I remember once sitting with some fellow graduate students as George was explaining some entomological knowledge or systematic principles (I don’t remember which), and at one point he just stopped, looked thoughtful for few seconds, and said, “Wait, why did I just say that? That isn’t true at all”, and he then proceeded to correct himself. This was a profound message to those of us concerned about social standing: it told us that science required us to focus on honesty and the pursuit of knowledge, even if that meant proving ourselves wrong in public. We learned that science was not about us; our pursuit was bigger than any of us.
One of George’s most important traits was his positivity toward others. He was almost always generous regarding others, and emphasized their better traits. He would not say anything negative about anyone in frustration or in spite, an inspiring demonstration for those of us not always so kind. Even in situations where it would be better to be honest about the negative traits about someone, he struggled to express them. To be at fault in this direction is vastly more preferable than the alternative.
One might think a man such as this would set such a daunting example that he would not inspire others, as he would be viewed as so distinct from the rest of us that we could not possibly follow his path. But George was humble, and that gave us a sense that we, too, could live by those principles. He was also not perfect, and did not hide his imperfections, and through those we could see his struggle, and what he had achieved by force of will; this led us to believe that we too could achieve our goals with honesty and hard work.
You will be missed, George, but the ripple of goodness and light that you created will continue to spread and amplify.