UMSL alumnus Henry Ballard

(Photo by August Jennewein)

In 1965, Henry Ballard was in the military stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., for Officer Candidate School. He wasn’t allowed to leave base so he and his friends were limited in terms of entertainment.

One day Ballard’s friend convinced him to go the base swimming pool, and Ballard, after watching his friend dive in, thought to himself, wow that looks easy. So Ballard jumped in the pool himself.

The thing was, Ballard didn’t know how to swim.

“So here I am I’m thrashing around in the water trying to figure out what in the heck is going on,” Ballard recalled. “At some point, there was a shift in my being. This very loving, pleasant voice was talking to me and I could feel the love permeating my body. I could feel it. I could understand it.”

He was pulled from the pool and was OK, other than “feeling like a fool.” Ballard, who grew up in St. Louis, had always been a devout Catholic, but the incident in the swimming pool gave his belief new meaning and his life new direction.

Ballard served a year in Vietnam as a combat engineer. He was later promoted to the rank of captain and brought back to Missouri where he took over a training company at Fort Leonard Wood. After leaving the military, he joined the Ironworkers #396 where he made that his career for 32 years. But in all that time he never forgot about the incident at the swimming pool. He felt the voice that had spoken to him didn’t want him to be an ironworker his whole life.

In 2007, at the age of 62, he retired. That year, he enrolled in his first course at University of Missouri–St. Louis with his eye on a philosophy degree.

Ballard graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in May. He is 70 years old.

When asked about favorite classes, he was quick to name his top three subjects: astronomy, because it shed so much light on how things came to be; biology, because he appreciated the physical definition it gives to the world; and creative writing, because above all Ballard said it is important to be able to convey ideas clearly.

Even though he graduated, Ballard isn’t finished with school. In the fall he is taking his first course at St. Thomas Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. He will be working toward a master’s degree in theology.

“I’d rather be a failure than a quitter,” Ballard said. “You can never quit in life. You have to have a goal. Even a wino has a goal in life – his is to get the next drink. Mine is finding out what I can do to help my fellow man as best I can.”


This story was written by Ryan Krull, a UMSL student pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing.

The UMSL Experience

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Ryan Krull

Ryan Krull

Ryan Krull is a second year student in the MFA program at UMSL. His fiction and journalism has appeared online and in print.
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