Retired math professor counts to 100
By JOHN FLOWERS
SALISBURY — Don Ballou concedes that his body and mind are showing some signs of wear and tear.
He’s more than entitled.
Ballou, a resident of the Shard Villa senior care home in Salisbury, will be celebrating his 100th birthday on Friday, March 28.
“I’ve been very fortunate in a lot of ways, and I’ve had a lot of help,” Ballou said on Monday, in reflecting upon a very rich life that has included some 31 years as a mathematics professor at Middlebury College and a fulfilling retirement during which he has traveled to all corners of the globe.
“I’m quite indebted to all the folks who have helped me along the way, such as here (at Shard Villa) and at Elderly Services (in Middlebury),” he said.
Don Ballou was born on March 28, 1908, in Chester, Vt. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Frenchman Henri Farman had just piloted the first passenger flight, and Robert Baden-Powell had just established the Boy Scout movement.
Chester was a wonderful place in which to grow up, Ballou recalled. He enjoyed going to school, where he developed a particular fondness for English and math.
He completed his undergraduate studies in English at Yale University, but decided to switch his focus to math after deciding that his mind “worked better” solving equations rather than “talking around a subject” in English.
So, Ballou went on to Harvard University for his graduate studies in math then took his first teaching job, as a mathematics professor at Georgia Tech in 1934.
He considered himself fortunate to land the job.
“It was toward the end of the (Great) Depression,” Ballou said. “There weren’t many positions available.”
Ballou spent eight pleasant years at Georgia Tech, but he and his late wife, Dorothy, eventually felt the tug of their native Vermont.
“Atlanta was a nice city and the school was nice, but it felt like we were considered a little bit like ‘damn Yankees’ and we very much felt like we wanted to get back to Vermont,” Ballou recalled, as he sat, bracing himself on his cane, at the foot of his bed.
Ballou had chatted, from year to year, with Middlebury College brass to see if anything had opened up on the mathematics faculty.
Finally it did in 1942.
Middlebury suited Ballou immediately, though he arrived on campus during difficult times.
“The war (World War II) has started,” he recalled. “All the young men were in the service.”
Things stabilized after the war. Young veterans, using the G.I. Bill, enrolled at Middlebury College in large numbers, Ballou said.
“That was a tremendous help to us,” Ballou said of the surge in enrollment.
Ballou spent the next three decades bringing tremendous progress to the college’s mathematics program, according to John D. Emerson, dean of planning and secretary of Middlebury College. Emerson, the college’s Charles A. Dana Professor of Mathematics, coincidentally succeeded Ballou when he retired in 1973.
“Don introduced Middlebury students to the world of computers in the 1960s,” Emerson said. “He was a true visionary, and he arranged to have the programs his students wrote sent to MIT, where the punch cards were read, the programs run, and the results returned to Middlebury. Thus, Don was an early pioneer whose work paved the way for Middlebury’s first acquisition in 1974 of a computer to support academic instruction.”
Today, the college offers a major in computer science, and the computer science department is housed in McCardell Bicentennial Hall.
Ballou lived in a home at the edge of campus until a fall last December prompted him to move to Shard Villa. Prior to his accident, Ballou attended many college math seminars in retirement.
“He always sat in the front row, and on occasion he would ask a question or make a comment,” Emerson said. “I think he particularly enjoyed being at seminars that were presented by our students who have always made public presentations of their thesis work.”
Retirement highlights have included trips to India, Egypt, Spain, Hawaii and Norway.
Ballou remains keenly interested in politics and current events, adding to a century of memories. Some of those early memories include Armistice Day, which signaled the end of World War I in 1918.
“All the church bells in town were rung,” Ballou recalled. “It was said to be the ‘War to End All Wars.’
“It was quite disappointing, in that respect,” he added, alluding to the ensuing conflicts he witnessed — World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
Ballou chalks up his longevity to avoiding fatty and spicy foods, not smoking and thankfully not contracting diabetes, an ailment that took the lives of his father and an uncle.
He has allowed himself some guilty pleasures.
“I quite enjoyed a cocktail around dinnertime and an occasional beer when my son comes to town,” said Ballou, who also subscribes to taking the occasional baby aspirin to help stay healthy.
His only child, Donald, 68, lives in New York state and visits when he can. Ballou has two grandchildren. While his parents didn’t live to be very old, his two late brothers, Earl and Paul, both lived into their 90s.
Ballou will have many well-wishers on his birthday, particularly from the college.
“Don has an especially keen mind, and his extraordinary intellect is balanced by humility and modesty,” Emerson said.
“Don always was, and remains today, the quintessential ‘gentleman.’”
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