All around West Ottawa, the name Martin E. Ball is found representing some of the best aspects of our school. From the branch of The National Honors Society, to the middle school gymnasium, to the annual baseball and softball tournament, Ball’s name is displayed, yet his legacy is not well known.
Ball was a baseball junkie. Growing up, he spent all of his free time in the yard surrounded by his friends playing catch or batting at the local field . He loved the game of baseball and played throughout high school. He then went on to play for Western Michigan University. At Western, Ball studied education. After college he continued his pursuit of baseball when he became a scout for the New York Yankees. This job led to another opportunity to coach a minor league baseball team.
With his passion for helping others and for history, he became a history teacher at Lake View High School. There, he used his talents and love for baseball as a coach. Ball was an outstanding teacher and loved by many of his students and players. This job gave him the exposure and experience needed to become an assistant high school principal. He worked as an assistant principal at Greenville High School and then moved on to become the principal of a school in southeast Detroit.
Ball loved his job, but it came with many difficulties. Ball’s son Tom Ball said, “ I remember no one around the school liked my dad. No matter what he did or how nice he was there was always just this stigma that students had to hate the principal.”
The Ball family lived near the school making it an easy commute, but hard to escape his students. After school, students would taunt the Ball family. Someone even through a brick through their front window while they were enjoying a family meal.
To cope with the constant chaos, Ball gardened. He loved gardening and used it as a way not only to escape but also to help others. “We grew so much food, but the majority of it he gave to people who needed it. We took what we needed and then shared with the rest of our neighbors.”
In 1976, West Ottawa offered Ball a job. He debated moving his family to the west side knowing it would be a big change. Holland in the 1970s was still a very conservative religious town. They believed in the traditional Sundays and told Ball he could not do anything on Sundays. Not even tend to his garden.
He chose to move to Holland because that was the best option for his career. While his family stayed back and tried to sell their house, Ball spent a month living in a campground. Tom said, “ We spent the weekends in Holland with my dad until we were able to sell our house. Even though Dad was always at some event for his school, he always made sure to include us kids and spend time with us.”
Ball spent three years at West Ottawa as principal. Unfortunately, Ball suffered a massive heart attack and passed away over Christmas break during his third year as principal.
Ball wasn’t your typical principal. He approached his job as principal different from most. Tom said, “ My dad treated his job more like public relations. He let his secretary take care of the paperwork part of it and he focused on his students and teachers. He formed relationships with every person he could and was just always friendly.”
Ball attended every school event he could whether that be for the basketball team, the band, or the debate team. He was always in the hallways greeting students with a smile on his face. Tom said, “He was never in his office.”
Ball fought through many obstacles to connect with his staff and students. The stigma was that principals were the bad guys. While most people believed this, Ball was determined to win his student’s and staff’s hearts over.
The first Christmas that Ball worked at West Ottawa, he performed an act of kindness unheard of for this time. Ball called a staff meeting in the library one cold morning. When his staff arrived, Ball surprised them with tables and tables full of desserts. He used these treats as a peace offering to his staff. While he knew it may not win them all over, he wanted to show them he was on their side.
While being an outstanding principal is difficult in itself, WO was also going through a rough patch. Ball’s time at WO overlapped with the Vietnam War. Many students used school hours to protest the war, and it caused many problems and created high tension between teachers and students.
Ball came into a school full of negativity and hatred and turned it around. Ball used his positivity, kindness and friendliness to create a better environment. Former instructor Karl Von Ins said, “In 1976 kids were up and walking out of class to protest the Vietnam War. The school was a mess. Then Mr. Ball came in and turned it around. He was the answer to what WO needed. He brought the school back together.”
Ball also faced his own personal obstacles. Ball suffered from diabetes. While at WO, his diabetes resulted in gangrene causing his foot to lose blood flow and die. He soon after had to get his foot removed.
While this would slow most people down, Ball was different. A week after his amputation, Ball was back at school with a smile on his face. Tom said, “He just loved his job so much and had a passion for the kids and his staff. He hated not being there for them and didn’t want to miss a thing.”
On top of everything he did for his job and community, he was also there for his family. He was the best father and husband that he could for his family. Ball always spent quality time with all of his children whenever he could. “ I remember going to my first baseball game with my dad. Visiting Western Michigan during basketball games, Going to my first auction with my dad. I actually still have the item we bought together at that auction in my house. Every moment I got to spend with my dad no matter how small he made sure to make special and memorable.”
Ball loved his family more than anything in the world. “Maybe he wasn’t there every time for dinner, but we were very close as a family. He really was the same person inside and outside of his job.”
Ball’s sudden death rocked the WO community. Over his few short years as principal, almost all had grown to love him. While his death was far too soon, the impact he had on WO are still evident today. He created the positive vibe between principals and students we commonly see today.
Von Ins said, “He was very student-body oriented and always positive. He came in and was really friendly, knew everyone’s name, and just died too soon.”
Ball’s story is one that should continually be told for decades to come.