A college campus is by its nature dynamic, shifting with the winds of progress, pop culture and social revolution. In the spring of 1956, a man named Willis Ball received his diploma from Western, becoming the first African American to graduate from this university. But Willis Ball was not the kind of man who would seek recognition for his accomplishments. Ball’s younger sister, Sandra Campbell, attended the Black Student Union’s annual dinner on Feb. 8 to speak about her brother’s life.
Campbell and Ball were separated by sixteen years of age, so Campbell said she saw her brother as a “third parent.” She has vivid memories of visiting Ball while he was at school.
“He was living in a big, old house and there were a bunch of other guys,” Campbell said. “It was a total mess, a real guy thing. I started picking things up and putting them away. My mother always made fun of me for that.”
Ball’s journey to Western started on the opposite corner of the country, in Winter Park, Fla. In 1942, after the breakout of World War II, Ball’s parents moved the family to Bremerton, Wash. and took jobs at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Ball went from a segregated school in the south to being one of just a few African-American students at a predominantly white school in Bremerton. Attending college was the expectation for Ball and his sister.
“My grandmother was a college graduate before she got married and started a family. There were eight children in her family and six attended college. Four earned master’s degrees and this was very early on in the century,” Campbell said. “The expectation was that you go to school so that you could better your situation and opportunities. The route that you took was up to you. But you were expected to go and you were expected to finish.”
After high school, Ball spent four years in the U.S. Air Force. In the fall of 1952, he began his studies at Western. He was a talented defensive tackle for Western’s football team, earning an Associated Press All-American honorable mention in 1955.
“He said that people here were very friendly, and that he felt comfortable here,” Campbell said. “He was very comfortable with himself. He radiated that comfort and people around him as a result were more comfortable.”
That ability to communicate would translate into a long career at the Seattle Parks & Recreation Department, where Ball worked as a recreation manager from the mid-1960s until 1987.
There is a scholarship in Willis Ball’s name offering an educational opportunity for families who value education as much as Ball’s did.
“We know that there are a lot of other families who feel the same way but aren’t able to give their children the assistance that they would like to,” Campbell said. “My brother was a generous person. He worked tirelessly for organizations in the community. So [the scholarship] was just kind of an outgrowth of what he was doing.”
Campbell praised not only Western’s efforts in recruiting students of marginalized identities, but more recent efforts to increase the retention rate of those students. She added that Ethnic Students Center clubs are crucial to achieving those goals.
Campbell’s husband, Willie, who worked with Ball, described Ball as a combination of Steve Harvey and Bill Cosby, a proud individual, but honest and no-nonsense.
Campbell summed Ball’s values up with this maxim: “Be real, be right and be ready.”
In 2012, 243 students at Western identified as black or African American. On a campus that prides itself on its diversity in all aspects, it is important to remember that, for each community, it all began with one.