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A Living Legacy

By Todd Copeland

Editor, The Baylor Line

I want to share a few thoughts about the impact that one gift from one person can have. The gift I have in mind is a monetary one, but gifts of other kinds can certainly be just as significant to the lives of others.

In this case, the person was the late Virginia Beall Ball, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University in 1940 and would later receive an honorary doctorate from the school. She could be described in a number of ways–a Texan, a civic leader, world traveler, a businesswoman, a pilot, a philanthropist. But she was also a lover of poetry and a tireless and generous patron of the arts. She had been a student under Baylor’s legendary English professor A. J. Armstrong, even serving as curator of the Browning Room. That is where she learned to love the power of language, a lesson that stuck with her through her life.

Back in the 1980s, Virginia endowed the Beall-Russell Lectures in the Humanities. It is a series that has brought many notable authors and intellectuals to campus. But my focus is the gift she made to Baylor in December 1993, when she established the John A. and DeLouise McClelland Beall Endowed Fund for the Beall Poetry Festival at Baylor to honor her parents and to encourage the writing and appreciation of poetry.

One of the activities required by the agreement between Virginia and Baylor was the staging of a three- to five-day festival of contemporary poetry. Thus, in the spring of 1995, the first edition of the annual Beall Poetry Festival took place.

I have had the privilege of serving on the festival’s steering committee since the event’s inception–the College of Arts and Sciences dean has been generous to include an “outsider” among the esteemed professors serving on the committee–and this year’s festival, held March 26-28, was the fifteenth edition. Hard to believe that fifteen years has passed by so quickly!

With one of the largest endowments of any such event in the country, the Beall Poetry Festival is able to bring some of the most accomplished poets and critics around to Baylor. And as has been the case every year since 1995, this year we brought several prominent poets and poetry critics to campus for readings, a panel discussion, and a lecture. All the events, which were held in the Armstrong Browning Library’s grand Foyer of Meditation, were free, and the place was consistently full of students, faculty, locals from the Waco area, and even some folks who had come in from Dallas and other cities.

This year’s participants were (pictured, l-r) David Lehman, who began the Best American Poetry series in 1988; C. D. Wright, who has received a Macarthur Foundation “genius” grant; Donald Hall, who recently served as U.S. poet laureate; and Peter Fallon, an Irish poet.

Because of Virginia Ball’s gift, Baylor students have had the opportunity to meet some of the most prominent writers of their time and to hear them read from their work. For some students, I am sure it has been an eye-opening, horizon-expanding, and perhaps life-changing experience. I know that when I was a Baylor student, hearing the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes deliver a speech at Baylor (as part of the Beall-Russell lecture series) was a pivotal experience in my becoming a writer.

Because of Virginia, we have literally brought the world of poetry to campus, and Baylor students have been the greatest beneficiaries of her generosity and guiding spirit. The list of the previous sixty-two Beall Poetry Festival participants includes more than a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, several National Book Award winners, a few U.S. poets laureate (Anthony Hecht, Mark Strand, Mona Van Duyn, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Donald Hall, and Charles Simic), and even one Nobel Prize winner (Derek Walcott). A full list can be found at http://www.baylor.edu/beall/index.php?id=2290.

As I do every year when the Beall Poetry Festival comes around, I think how significant to the life of Baylor the vision and gifts of Virginia Ball have been. Though she is gone now, having died in 2003, the annual poetry festival at Baylor is still marked by her spirit.

Thank you, Virginia.

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