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JOHN EDWARD DEWAR BALL “A LION RAMPANT LAID TO REST” (1932-2010)
Born August 19, 1932 in the Maryhill section of Glasgow, Scotland, John Edward Dewar Ball was the third of five children (Cathy, Mary; Jean, Tom being the oldest and youngest, respectively.) His parents were Mary ―Molly‖ McManus, a first-generation Glaswegian of Irish-Catholic extraction, and John Dewar Ball, a third-generation Glaswegian and Scottish Presbyterian whose family were originally Ulstermen from Belfast. A brief mention of his parents‘ religious affiliations is offered only for the purpose of drawing some historical context. The grim reality of 1930‘s Scotland was such that so-called mixed-marriages were tantamount to interracial marriages in America of the same era. Subtle bigotry was but one of the obstacles John would face as a child. There would be more difficulties, making his subsequent accomplishments in life all the more remarkable. Life in the Ball family was marked by stretches of economic hardship. John‘s mother Molly would take to hiding keys from her beloved piano so that her husband wouldn‘t sell the instrument for spending money. Though he rarely elaborated on it, much of John‘s early childhood was spent in a room-and-kitchen. Unfortunately this succinct description sums up the accommodations only too well. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Glasgow constructed hundreds of drab, gray tenements to house the influx of Irish immigrants arriving to work in the River Clyde‘s shipyards. Each apartment consisted of a room where the children slept and a ‗kitchen‘ or bed-recess where the parents slept. Toilet facilities were on each landing and shared between families. Pictured to the left is the back-court of a Glasgow tenement circa 1930. No doubt at the instigation of some unthinking bureaucrat, the school clothing for disadvantaged children was distinctive and unmistakable. On rare occasions John would describe the humiliation this attire caused him when the family‘s financial straits afforded him little other choice. He was an unstinting contributor to charities all his adult life (This was gleaned, not from any overt admission on his part, but from the stacks of advocacy group brochures and pleas that invariably cluttered his desk.) He reacted viscerally to images of poverty—as one might expect from someone who‘d lived the experience, and became visibly agitated at the sight of needy children all his life. Not one to dwell on his early deprivations, John would find this account altogether remiss if his many fond memories of Glasgow (not to mention his beloved Partick Thistle Football Club) were not given equal attention. A boisterous working class hub, mid-20th century Glasgow was often hailed as the friendliest city in the world. It was a place where everyone looked after everyone else. There were no strangers. Children traipsed between neighbors‘ flats when their parents weren‘t home. Indeed John spoke wistfully of the camaraderie and warmth of his native city. The proximity of tenement life seemed to breed comity more than contempt. There were few airs and graces as everyone launched from the same workingman‘s boat. Glasgow‘s 1947-65 post-war period was a golden era in many ways. For John, Clifford Hanley‘s famous autobiography Dancing in the Streets captured the raucous spirit of the city so completely, that he often said it could have been his childhood biography too. At the age of eight, during the height of the German Blitz on the Clydebank shipyards, John, like many city children, was evacuated to the countryside. During this period, he lived on a farm with his two older sisters, Cathy and Mary (pictured below at about the time of the evacuation and indeed perhaps at the moment of evacuation itself.) Despite repeated efforts to separate them, Cathy, the oldest stood firm, insisting that ‗My mum said we were not to be split up.‘ Her obstinacy prevailed. All three were sent to the same farm.
On the whole, John spoke favorably of his one-year stay at the farm in Biggar, Lanarkshire, often joking that it was a step-up in life. He had his own room, was well-fed and attended school regularly. But it was no substitute for his parents and the familiarity of home. Numerous historic accounts report that the rural populations often viewed the urban child-evacuees as little more than extra farm hands. However John‘s chore list was light and entirely appropriate for a typical young farm boy. He spoke once of a man on the farm who would put him on a large draught horse and then swat its backside. The horse would gallop around the field while John clung to its mane in terror. As John recalled, this seemed to entertain the man to no end. John was an avid electronics buff as a teen. Molly sequestered the closet beneath the staircase for him where he tinkered with circuits and switches. By this time the family had secured a small detached home. His aptitude for electronics seemed to blossom with the provision of his own personal laboratory. The economic realities of post-war Britain forced John to abandon school at age 14. He obtained a job with the Post Office as a telegraph messenger boy. This was quite a coup, due in large part to his beloved Molly interceding with some friends to get John the highly-coveted entry-level job. For one thing, the Post Office offered lifetime employment, if not particularly exciting work. While there, John progressed to telephone repairman. Unfortunately, that first winter was an extremely wet one, leaving John little choice but to trudge around Glasgow, ankle-deep in frigid water. His mother scoured the city for a pair of Wellington boots, precious commodities in post-war Scotland. John often recounted Molly finding him on the High Street where she removed his sodden canvas shoes, dried his feet with a towel and pulled on his new boots. In the end, her efforts proved too little too late. In the first year of his postal employment, John contracted pleurisy and was bedridden for seven months. After that, he enjoyed near-excellent health until the stroke that claimed his life. Never one to follow the crowd, John often recounted being conscripted into the RAF Coastal Command, a formation within the Royal Air Force (RAF) and choosing aircraft signalling as a specialty while others jostled for the more exotic pilot slots. The sole Scot in an otherwise allEnglish squadron, he flew on the Shackleton, the most accident-prone airplane in the RAF, and remained a proud member of the Shackleton Club all his life. He would speak hauntingly of the entire prior class of aircraft signallers that plunged into the sea off Tarbat Ness. Many had been his friends. None survived. At the conclusion of his two-year conscription, John was offered the opportunity to become a full-fledged pilot, an invitation extended to only a tiny number of conscriptees. However by that time he was receiving interest from other employers. John would later recall his ‗band of brother‘ days with the RAF as among his happiest. The decision to pursue communications proved to be a prescient one as it led to valuable RAF training and, later, a job with the highly prestigious British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) where he spent thirteen years as a well-regarded young engineer with a bright future. One of his favorite stories involved being inches away from a visiting President Eisenhower and the Queen when the former visited Balmoral Castle in Scotland. He remarked on Eisenhower‘s easy, unassuming manner. Little did John know this inauspicious brush with America was a precursor of more exciting stateside adventures yet to come. He married Elizabeth Smith Rodger in 1959, his wife of fifty years known to all as Betty. The new couple resided on the south side of Glasgow in a comparatively tony district of the city called Queen‘s Park (pictured below right.) No longer a gray sandstone boy, John had (to quote the lingo of the day) become
a posh, red sandstone boy. During this time, he attended night school at Glasgow‘s Royal College of Science and Technology (the alma mater of another great Scottish television engineer, John Logie Baird) where he earned a double major in Mathematics and Electronics. The couple‘s first son, Norman, arrived in 1961. Norman is the father of John‘s only grandchild Gregory born in 1995. A third child, Evan, was born in America in 1968. During the birth of their second son, Adrian in 1965, Betty contracted a delivery-room infection that was initially misdiagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis (years later, an American doctor would properly diagnose the condition as a bacterial infection that only mimicked rheumatism.) This illness proved to be yet another fateful and momentous turning point in John‘s life, not to mention the lives of his young family. The infection rendered Betty unable to walk for three months. Thus at age 34, with a promising career, a four-year-old and a newborn, John found himself in a doctor‘s office being advised that his wife may never walk again. The best hope, the Doctor counseled, was to move to a warmer, dryer climate where the progressive onset of Betty‘s rheumatism could at least be slowed. Always a decisive man who didn‘t like to waver once he‘d set a path, John immediately began soliciting overseas opportunities. A fierce competitor (and relentless soccer coach), he may well have relished the challenge of navigating a bigger pond. Almost certainly the decision to start anew in near-middle-age with a young family in tow, spoke to a commendable mixture of moxie, duty and courage. There would be no returning to the BBC and precious few other options in Scotland for a television engineer. Fortunately as time would prove, John met the emigrant challenge, accomplishing more in the second half of life (his ‗American‘ half) than many of us do in our entire lives. As John recounted later, the final destination could just have easily been Australia, Canada or New Zealand. But America called first. By this time the nation‘s so-called Brain Drain was in full-swing. With many of its finest engineering minds already committed to the Space Program, the U.S. began reaching beyond its shores to woo English-speaking engineers from around the world. The family arrived in Washington D.C. in 1966. Recruited by Computer Science Corporation (CSC), John‘s first assignment involved authoring a report on “Domestic Uses of Geosynchronous Communications Satellites”. John‘s major finding was that these satellites were ideally suited for the distribution of television programming. This led to his 1967 tenure with INTELSAT where he oversaw the establishment of the first global satellite TV distribution system, the same system used in 1969 to furnish the world with pictures of Neil Armstrong‘s historic walk on the Moon. Aware of his growing reputation as one of the world‘s foremost satellite television experts, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) recruited John in 1971 to design and oversee implementation of the first domestic satellite-based TV distribution system. A program manager by nature, John brought the PTV satellite project to completion in 1978 in the only way he knew how: on-schedule and on-budget. It was for this project that he was awarded the first of two national engineering Emmy‘s by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. One fateful day in 1972 --largely on an afterthought—he attended a small demonstration at Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) in Washington D.C. entitled “The Line 21 Subtitling System for the Deaf.” Immediately he was struck by the enthusiasm of the largely deaf audience. To their apparent surprise, the demonstrators –ABC-TV and the National Bureau of Standards—found themselves barraged with questions: ―When can we get this service?‖ ―How much will it add to the cost of our TV sets?‖ Emboldened by the enthusiasm of their audience, the demonstrators responded that a chip costing no more than $5 could be built into new TV sets, and that subtitled programs could be available as early as 1973.
Though skeptical about the delivery dates, John reported back on the enthusiastic reception of this nascent technology to senior management who encouraged him to explore a possible role for PBS. As it turned out the Gallaudet demonstrators had been wildly optimistic about the imminent availability of captioned television. It would be another seven years before PBS, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), PBS member stations and others, made closed caption television a reality. For this effort, John accepted on behalf of PBS a national engineering Emmy in 1980. The second major chapter of closed captioning commenced with the establishment in 1980 of the National Captioning Institute (NCI) for which John served as the founding President and CEO. The iconic ‗talking TV‘ logo has become one of the most recognizable symbols in America. During his 15-year tenure, the first live news programs were captioned, five generations of set-top boxes were developed and the audience was expanded beyond the original deaf and hard-of-hearing community to include English as a Second Language (ESL) viewers, learning-disabled children and home video audiences as well as to a number of overseas markets. Other R&D efforts ensued including the $1 million development of an LSI chip. Perhaps the pinnacle of NCI‘s achievements under John‘s tenure was the passage of the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 as a result of the landmark lobbying effort spearheaded by NCI. With the entire television installed base now equipped with close captioned capability (previous to this, a separate decoder box or specially-outfitted TV had to be purchased), the chicken-and-egg conundrum was solved. The economic critical mass suddenly existed to caption thousands of additional shows. Another landmark of this Act was that, for the first time, a specific chip was mandated by Congress in a consumer electronics device. John would remark later that, with this Act, NCI had largely fulfilled its non-profit raison d‟être by fostering and incubating a promising technology with wide-ranging social benefits. Today, there are hundreds of viable private-sector captioning entities operating around the world. John gave frequent testimony on Capitol Hill, counted Senators and prominent actors among his friends, resolved innumerable technical and business issues with the Big Three networks in New York, maintained an office in Los Angeles to cultivate movie captioning, had a warm and extended conversation with First Lady Rosalyn Carter on the virtues of rural Georgia, was conducted on a personal tour by First Lady Barbara Bush of the family‘s private quarters during which she queried him on the whether he thought the drapes should be changed; all in all, quite heady stuff for, by his own tongue-in-cheek description, a wee boy from Maryhill. John‘s efforts on behalf of the deaf and others did not go unheeded. For his services to the deaf community, he received an honorary Doctor of Law from Gallaudet University. For the ESL benefits of closed captioning on behalf of Spanish-speaking children, the city of El Paso, Texas presented him with a Key to the City. He was made a lifelong honorary member of the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf and he received a Distinguished Service award from the American Speech Language Hearing Association. There were psychic rewards as well. He would receive letters from parents of hard-of-hearing children, describing how the
latter would suddenly feel part of the family as, for the first time, they too could watch and enjoy TV with the others. After retiring from NCI in 1993, John remained active on a number of fronts. He wrote an 1995 Op Ed Piece for the Washington Post on the V-chip. As Chief Technology Officer of EDS/A.T. Kearney in 1999-2000, he chaired a series of roundtable discussions on the status of the broadcast digital television (DTV) transition. It became apparent to him as a result of these inquiries that no overarching entity had full authority for the DTV transition, thus dooming it to disarray, schedule delays and unanticipated costs. As it turned out, history would prove him right. He also served briefly as a telecommunications correspondent for global newswire service United Press International (UPI). Over the years, he participated on and chaired many telecommunications industry committees on behalf of IEEE, ITU, NCTA, NAB, EIA, etc. and authored numerous papers; was a frequent expert witness before Congress; belonged to the COSMOS Club, the Washington Society of Engineers and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. In his final years and indeed up until his death, John was a tireless advocate for retaining the universal service advantages of traditional broadcast television or, as he preferred to characterize it, free TV. His naturally populist bent was inflamed by the notion that TV might slip from the grasp of regular Americans, becoming a subscriber-based service only. His FreeDTVPlus initiative outlined many of the nuances of what he hoped would be a broadcast TV renaissance.
“With the end of analog TV broadcasting in sight, the percentage of Over-the-Air-only (OTA) homes could drop to 5% or less by 2010 triggering perhaps the end of our only free TV service. Certainly those that need spectrum for other services and are prepared to pay for it would welcome such an event.” --Dr. John E. D. Ball, President, FreeDTVPus (2008)
Never one to gloat over his accomplishments, John in his later years tended to express a sense of wonderment and awe at how such a plenitude of good fortune had sprung from what could only be called humble roots; the numerous colleagues he had lost on the Shackleton‘s, how he‘d outlived both his younger and older siblings, indeed how blessed his life had been. They were the reflections of a driven man who, upon surveying the entirety of his life, rendered a final assessment that resonated, first and foremost, with a deep and abiding gratitude. In his myriad roles as husband, father, business leader, visionary, military man, patent-holder, member of the Vienna Presbyterian Church, soccer coach, Cub Scout leader, charmer of America‘s First Ladies, John Edward Dewar Ball contributed to the world around him with hard work, unswerving passion, enduring commitment and a sensibility that always put public service before personal gain. With his intellect and business acumen, John could no doubt have amassed great wealth had such a mission only captured his interest. Curiously though, he was largely devoid of the acquisitive impulse that drives so many of comparable gifts. For him, the work was its own reward. He was endowed with a dry, quirky sense of humor that didn‘t border on the corny. It oozed corniness. One of his timeworn favorites was, Did you know Dublin is the fastest-growing city in the world? It‟s Dublin every day. Upon returning from a trip to Ireland he would express astonishment at how many Dubliners doubled over in laughter at this joke (pardon the pun, Dad). Apparently it had never made the rounds in Dublin before. Another of his favorites was the American woman who, inquiring about the man‘s kilt, asks: “Is anything worn under the kilt?” The man replies, “No ma‟am, everything‟s in fine working order.” In later years, John was fond of saying when he arrived anywhere and in his best Lord Muck delivery: „No need to stand up when I enter the room, just as long as you bow when I exit.‟ Of course he was always just imposing enough that uninitiated strangers would await the crack of a smile before joining in on the joke.
Well Dad, without further coaxing we bow on this, the occasion of your final departure. Rest in peace and rest assured that, in public and private spheres alike, you conducted yourself with the grace and dignity of an old-world gentleman. Your example will not soon be forgotten.
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