On Saturday, June 12 we will celebrate the 20th “Ballard’s Day” in Wildie. Ballard’s birthday is June14, he would have been 70 years old. This is a pitch-in meal and everyone is invited, you don’t have to bring anything to attend, just yourself.
Ballard Parsons was born on June 14, 1940. In the summer of 1952 he was helping his Dad haul milk and bale hay. He was already driving both the truck and tractor and was on his way to becoming a farmer. He was a big and strong 12 year old boy. This was about to change.
Around the first of July Ballard began to get sick. His parents thought he had a cold or the flu. His younger sister Libby was sick too. Ballard began to have trouble keeping his balance and he stumbled a lot. This was really out of the ordinary for him because he was such a strong young boy. By July 4, he couldn’t walk. Kenneth Stewart, his cousin, came by to check on him and immediately loaded him in the car and went to Mt. Vernon to find Dr. George Griffith. Dr. Griffith met Ballard, Kenneth and Ballard’s Dad, Shirley Parsons at his office.
Without delay Dr. Griffith sent Ballard to Berea Hospital and asked about any illness in other family members. When he found out that Ballard’s sister, Libby, was sick too, he ordered her brought to his office. When he examined her he sent her to the Berea Hospital too.
What the family and Kenneth Stewart feared was unfortunately true. Both Ballard and Libby had contracted infantile paralysis, or polio. Ballard had reached the critical stage, but Libby’s had been caught early. Libby was treated and sent home, Ballard was not so lucky.
From the hospital in Berea Ballard was sent to St. Joseph hospital in Lexington. The disease had already done a lot of damage to Ballard’s strong body. He was losing use of his muscles and they began to waste away. He was also losing his ability to breath on his own.
Ballard was sent from St. Joseph to Cardinal Hill Hospital in Lexington for treatment. Cardinal Hill was almost brand new then. It was built especially to treat people with polio, mostly children. The money to build the hospital was from the “March of Dimes” campaign. This was a fund raising campaign to treat and find a cure for polio that almost every child in school participated in. You got a card with so many slots to place dimes in. When you filled that card up with dimes it was sent to the March of Dimes. It has been said that the March of Dimes should get most of the credit for conquering polio, it certainly saved Ballard’s life.
Ballard spent an entire year in Cardinal Hill. In order to breath he was placed in an “iron lung”. This was a huge device that his body was placed in with only his head outside of it. By mechanical means it caused his lungs to inflate and deflate and in effect, breathe for him. During this time Ballard was also given therapy to teach his body to breathe again on its own, the primary goal at that time was to get him off the iron lung.
Ballard was able to breathe on his own by the summer of 1953 and he came home.
He was in a wheelchair and he could only move his left arm and his right leg, both very little.
A couple of years later his Dad, Uncle Shirly to all of us nephews and cousins, bought Joe Bullen’s store in Wildie. Ballard ran that store every day but Sunday from then until he died in 2003. Here is where the real story of Ballard Parsons begins for me.
I speak for many people that grew up and/or lived in Wildie. Ballard’s store was the place to be. When I was very young it was Uncle Shirley’s store and I went there almost every day. If it was in the summer and school was out I went two or three times a day to talk to Ballard and just loaf. When school started back I would go after school and usually I would go at night with my Dad, because everybody in Wildie came to the store to loaf and exchange gossip. When my older brother, Tommy, was still home he loafed at the store too, when my younger brothers, Mark and Lynn, got old enough they then learned the art of loafing at Ballard’s from professionals.
Ballard would sit there in his wheelchair and be the center of all the conversations. There was a good reason he was in that position, it was because he was always the smartest person in the store and he knew more about what was being talked about than everybody else. He was never a pretender about what he knew and he was never smug, he was just smart. Ballard could add numbers in his head as quick as a calculator. When people bought groceries from him he would add up the total simply by the customer holding up the item bought. It didn’t matter how many items were bought, Ballard was never wrong in his addition. He was also the best checker and Rook player I have ever seen.
Ballard was my cousin. I loved him as much as anyone could love a cousin. I spent a lot of time with him over the years and I will never feel like one second of that time was wasted. He was always happy and he was positive in his outlook. He appreciated hearing a good joke and he was good enough at telling them that you would laugh until your belly hurt. He loved bluegrass music and you could often walk in on him singing along with the radio. For all of Ballard’s many talents, and he had more than most, singing was not one of them. But he loved to sing and that was all that mattered.
Ballard and my brother Tommy taught me to love the Cincinnati Reds and the Kentucky Wildcats. They both loved these teams and when Tommy went to the store they talked endlessly about them, depending on the season. I always felt lucky to be there just to hear what I thought was their expert opinion. The first teams I remember rooting for were the 1956 Cincinnati Reds and the 1958 Kentucky Wildcats. The ’56 Reds team had great hitting and poor pitching. It was Frank Robinson’s rookie season and he was voted rookie of the year in the National League. Johnny Coffey and William Henry Branaman (Ballard’s uncle) took Tommy and Ballard to Cincinnati to watch the Reds play that year. The ’58 Wildcats won the NCAA that year. We listened to the championship game on the radio in the back of Uncle Shirley’s store.
Ballard was the best farmer around, and he never left the wheelchair in the store. After Uncle Shirley died in 1970 Ballard helped his brother Donnie with the farm. For well over thirty years neither Donnie nor any other farmer who loafed in the store did anything without first consulting Ballard. He was always right too.
As I got older and went to the Army and then to school, I didn’t get to Ballard’s store as often as I had in the past. But, after I got out of school and settled back in the county, I started going to see Ballard almost every Saturday. When I could I would take my girls with me, I simply wanted them to know Ballard and his special place in the world. Some of my most favorite Saturday memories are when my three brothers and me would sit with Ballard for two or three hours. We ate our lunch there. We would eat pickled bologna, Vienna sausage, potted meat or whatever else was on the menu. .
Ballard died in 2003, just before my Mother did. My trips to Wildie were reduced in number greatly. I still go to church there and I still go to see my sister and brother-in-law, but a great part of the place is missing.
It goes without saying that my parents and my grandparents were great influences in my life. But, I can say without a doubt in my mind that Ballard Parsons was one of the greatest positive influences I’ve had. I don’t know how many times I have gone to see Ballard when I was feeling down or a bit depressed. All it cost me to feel better was a pop and bag of potato chips alone with a conversation with my cousin. I always thought if Ballard could be as happy as he is why I can’t be just a little happy myself. And, as I write this I now realize I had those thoughts and didn’t even realize at the time I was thinking like that. It happened so much it became an unnoticed habit. What a blessing I experienced by growing up around Ballard Parsons. I am sure I speak for a whole lot of other people too.