Mark Hecker gives TEDx DUKE talk on "Being Helpful"


There are so many reasons to celebrate Duke tonight. But, if you're looking for one more, I hope you'll join me in remembering Ben. The recent TEDxDuke talk I gave started and ended with Ben. And, for me, he's a big part of who I am. The link is now available (below).

Tonight, so many people hate on Duke. But, you can never hate on Ben. 


On Being Helpful:

Mark '03

Student in Ben's Philosophy of Education Class.

 Ben challenged every student in his philosophy class to question long-held assumptions and a make a change. I remember a couple of nuggets of wisdom he shared: 

- If the Duke admissions office could be disbanded and applications chosen at random, Duke's freshman class would not likely be noticeably different for it. 

- There is nothing particularly admirable in and of itself about being a professional, for professionalism is merely excellence at a skill, not a sign of moral integrity. A skill can be directed toward good or toward ill. Ben deeply believed that a true education was one that improved a person on a deep, moral level. 

- It was sometime around then, Fall 1992, that Ben announced he had begun teaching himself Arabic with a few hours of study each morning. Before long he was teaching it to Duke students. 

Identified as almost supernaturally brilliant, Ben left Montgomery, Alabama, at a very young age to be educated in Berkeley. So he knew what it was like to be a long way from home and to feel a bit out of place. He took that experience, I believe, and decided to make himself in adulthood an available friend and family member to every student he encountered. I will always think of Ben as someone sent to remind us that we are valued, we have gifts, and we belong. He treated each of us like prodigies. Isn't that how we should treat every person we meet in this world? Thank you, Ben, for leading through example.

-Eric Larson


Remembering Ben Ward

Remembering Ben Ward

guest column

By Joseph Landau | January 28, 2014

On Dec. 14, 2013, Duke University lost one of the greatest, most inspirational teachers it has ever known. After a four-year struggle with colon cancer, Benjamin F. Ward passed away at the young age of 65.


Many of us knew and loved Ben—a professor and dean who insisted that we not call him “Professor” or “Dean”—during our years at Duke. To this day, I remember vividly our weekly conversations—many lasted into the evening—to discuss my senior thesis. I served with Ben on a presidential task force that made many recommendations to the University administration, including one, of which Ben deservedly took great pride, that all first-year students be relocated to East Campus. I once accompanied Ben to Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, S.C., where Ben regaled hundreds of participants of the time he performed with the great composer Rostropovich. Most importantly, I remember countless conversations with Ben and his tremendous capacity for empathy. To young Duke students coming of age, Ben often provided a source of support that could not have come from anywhere else.


After I graduated from Duke in 1995, Ben continued to offer his wise and helpful advice, which deeply influenced my decision to pursue law and, later, the teaching of law. If not for Ben’s sage input, my professional and academic career would likely have turned out quite differently. Ben taught me many things, but what I remember most from my time with him was how he approached life. Ben wanted all of us to inhabit a world in which each of us would be the master of his own destiny. Ben exhorted us to buck convention and to make our own decisions based on intellects and instincts that were truly ours—and ours alone.


Ben taught me how to teach, and he taught me—he taught all of us—how to live a life worth living. In the class he devoted to existentialism and the teachings of Sartre, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Heidegger, Ben’s paramount interest wasn’t that we understand a particular philosophical tradition but, rather, that we seriously attempt to understand our lives and our respective relationships to the world. Ben addressed his inquiries to our habits of mind, instilling the importance of transcending the common routines and well-worn tracks many of us were following.


How did Ben teach us these things? One answer, perhaps, is found in Plato’s description of the teacher in the Theaetetus. There, Plato writes that, as students, we are pregnant with knowledge and that the teacher is a midwife who delivers that knowledge out of us. I think this image helps us understand Ben, for he lived and embodied this role every day. Ben taught us that the answers to life’s hardest questions were already inside us. In this way, Ben was the most benevolent guide and teacher one could ask for.


To those full of anxiety about the future, we learned through our dialogue with Ben that we could little foresee what our respective paths would be. But this was good news—not bad—because Ben illuminated the possibility of innumerable paths and, in the process, helped us discover who we might become.


Ben knew and admitted that this exploration—this search to live a true and genuine life—required heavy intellectual lifting and moral inquiry. No sentimentalist, Ben also told us that engaging in this inquiry was a luxury. As students, we had a privileged opportunity to inform ourselves about our world, engage it and find people who inspired us. But, ultimately, we would have to become our own sources of inspiration—so that we, in turn, could inspire others. This was a luxury, but—at the risk of reading too much into Ben’s teaching—it was also a responsibility. In the words of Sartre, we were “condemned to be free.” We were, in the end, “nothing other than [our] own project[s],” and we existed only to the extent that we performed those projects.


Ben imparted all of this without moral judgment or criticism of anyone’s choices. He shared his knowledge easily, without condescension, with encouragement, with authority, with gentleness and with wisdom.


Ben was also deeply private, in some respects unknown and unknowable—but he also made himself public, and what was manifest in all his dealings was his enormous generosity of spirit—not in an amorphous, general way, but tied to those things he cherished, valued and committed his life to: philosophy, music, aesthetics, sport, his commitment to engaging students in a lifelong love of learning and fostering the development not of a singular vision of what life should be, but rather helping launch young people to discover the life they could make that was theirs alone.


I have spent a good deal of time thinking about Ben since his recent death—what he stood for, what he meant to me and how much he shaped my experience as an undergraduate at Duke in the 1990s. While I mourn deeply the loss of this tremendous man, I feel comforted by my memories of him—many still so very vivid—and the strong belief that he would want me to do nothing more than pass on his teachings to my own students, to my friends and to loved ones.


Joseph Landau, Trinity ’95, is an associate professor of law at Fordham Law School in New York City. He was a biweekly columnist for The Chronicle during his senior year at Duke

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Fellow Student in Paris, France 1966-67

 Even as an undergraduate, and one who was very young for his class, Ben stood out as a remarkable person. He was kind, thoughtful, gracious and clearly brilliant. He had a wonderful facility for French, too.

A stand-out memory for most of us in Ben's Paris class was the piano concert he played in Paris. When we left Paris, I fully expected to hear him play Carnegie Hall!
Our Paris group is having a reunion in October of this year, and we are all devastated that he will not be there. I am sending you a picture (from our shared reunion folder) of Ben playing the piano for us in the apartment of our program's director.

-Clifford van Voorhees




You were the greatest influence on my academic life. When I found out that you died I cried because I hoped you would always be here and I cannot even begin to comprehend what has happened. Thank you for everything you have done for me and I hope to live a life that will make you proud.

-Z S

Worked with Ben in the Duke residential life office.


The passing of Professor Benjamin Ward is a great loss to all who ever met him, including Duke students, faculty, and staff. I was Housing Coordinator in Duke's Residential Life office when Ben arrived at Duke in 1980, and he & I worked together through to my retirement in 1993. I can remember the trouble he had with his piano when he arrived, as he was to move into a second floor apartment in Trent Drive Residence Hall as Duke's first Faculty-in-Residence. Ben, as a member of our staff, was instrumental in the growth of that program throughout the 80's and beyond, affording our students the opportunity to develop closer relationships with faculty residing among them. Being such a special individual, Ben's relationships with students were undoubtedly the strongest. Appropriately, when one of the residence halls in Eden's Quad was developed as the "Arts Dorm", Ben moved in there. During the 80's & early 90's, I had the pleasure of attending many terrific musical programs there at Ben's invitation.

I graduated from Duke in 1946, took a job there and never left, and through all my years at Duke, Ben was undoubtedly one of my favorite people. He had a remarkable way of making everyone feel special. There is one cherished memory in particular that stands out. In 1986, at my 40th Class Reunion dinner, Ben and the Pitchforks performed, and much to my surprise, they dedicated a song to me.

Ben was always very helpful to all the staff in our Residential Life office, including the upperclassmen and graduate students who served as Residential Advisors in the residence halls. In our weekly staff meetings, he was always encouraging and supportive, and he was always quick to pitch in wherever he could. I always felt he was there for me whenever I needed him, no matter what problems or challenges might develop. We were a close-knit family in the Residential Life office, and Ben was a big reason for that. We need more Ben Ward's among us in the world. We were lucky to have him. He was, and always will be, a much beloved friend. I will miss him greatly.

-Barbara Buschman

Friend and fellow pitchfork '86-'92

There are a small number of experiences in my life that have left a deep and enduring mark on me & helped me be who I am. Singling with the Pitchforks was unquestionably one of those, and not the least for the many valuable “pointers” I learned from Ben – not by far just about music, but about principled living, honor/care/teaching of others, and of COURSE having fun in his own free & sometimes very goofy way that never undercut his sincerity & seriousness at the appropriate times. The stories of his antics on tours with the Pitchforks are too numerous to begin recounting!

Ben stood out as being unusually principled & disciplined … for example, choosing not to eat for ~ a month in order to not participate in a war he didn’t believe in, or foregoing the U.S. news broadcast media when he found coverage of an election too trivializing. His dedication to his students, and to the Pitchforks – over ~33 years! – was an inspiration – not to mention his incredible musical prodigy. Yet despite his impressive musical skill, I recall him being very patient in helping me (quite inexperienced at such a thing) try my hand at arranging a few songs for the ‘Forks.

I particularly remember one discussion with him (in a restaurant or bar @ Georgetown – I still remember!) about leadership, & how the group needed better/more of it at that point. That discussion has stayed with me for many years (more than my brief partial reading of Howard Gardner’s tome on the subject) both in my reflections on what I have & do not have in my own personal leadership skills, but especially for how it helped me recognize how very effective Ben was as a leader, & with such a unique and (as another Pitchfork has remarked) “thoughtful and soft-touch” style.

Once I moved away from Duke, I would catch up with Ben mainly through the occasional email or one of our periodic Pitchforks reunions. It was at one such recent reunion that I learned of his strengthened dedication to others not only in the academic setting, but to those in the Durham community less fortunate in their economic means or educational opportunities, and was all the more impressed with the breadth and depth of his humanity (ALMOST as great as his arm span!). Reading the tributes of others, I am further impressed to see what a strong influence he had on so many people as a mentor & colleague.

It is a privilege to have known Ben, and I still feel his impact in my life one way or the other on many days ... Having started my own family not so long ago, I now am in the habit of singing my boys to sleep each night, very often with one of Ben’s arrangements for the Pitchforks. It seems especially poignant now to see him still giving to those he never even met. I know I am only one of the very many by whom he will be greatly missed.

-Steve Stasheff

Mother of a Pitchfork 05-09'

I remember the first time I met Ben… This unassuming man with a baseball cap came to my doorstep with his entourage of talented young men late one autumn afternoon in 2005, as the Pitchforks became a blessing, and a wonderful and cherished part of my life. Not only did my son benefit from being a part of this incredible fraternity of amazing young men, but our entire family was richer for being welcomed as a part of this incredible extended family as well... and the greatest gift of all was Ben.

For four wonderful years, Ben became a welcome fixture at my home whenever the group would travel on break, and I always looked forward to this ritual with great anticipation. Ben fell in love with our family dog, McKenzie, and you could always find the two of them huddled in a corner together. Ben absolutely adored her, and McKenzie was particularly honored to have been included in Ben's Pitchfork photo on the website....

While I always knew that Ben was special, this unassuming man with his multitude of talents and incredible heart and spirit, became a cherished part of our family, just as we became a part of his. To know Ben was to love him, and while he was here he brought joy and love to all of us, through so many layers that we are all still discovering. Yet the greatest gift that of all, was bringing each one of us together as an extended family, with strong and heartfelt ties that will always endure. Whether through his teaching, hiss music, or his selfless community service, Benjamin Ward was a master composer… of life.

Your legacy lives on Papa Grande… and I have no doubt that you are in Heaven teaching Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart your impeccable Pitchfork harmonies, while sipping on a large tumbler of ginger ale. You are dearly loved and dearly missed Ben... God bless you....well done! ❤

- Ivey Pate


My tribute to the memory of Dr. Ward is a humorous story. I met Dr. Ward through a friend at his beloved Durham Bulls baseball game. I was introduced to him as "Dr. Ward" and I made it a point to call him Dr. Ward whenever I saw him at a game. (He would tease me about the speed in which I would consume my popcorn.) My friend used to pick him up and take him to the Bulls games when he could no longer drive. Well I couldn't go to one of the games and my then girlfriend (now wife) was going and they were going to stop by and pick up Dr. Ward. She had never met him, but I told her that it was Dr. Ward and make sure you call him Dr. Ward. So when she got back home, I asked her, "How was the game and did she enjoy meeting Dr. Ward?" She said, "Oh Benjamin was a great guy and we had a lot of fun!!!" I was like okay Dr. Ward I see how it is..LOL. You will be greatly missed by my wife and I ,your friends and the Durham Bulls!!! 

Respectfully submitted, Claude Piercy

Freshman counselee at Yale, 1971-72, and friend for over 40 years after that

Ben was my freshman counselor when I got to Yale in 1971. He lived across the hall on the fourth floor of Bingham Hall. He was finishing up his doctoral dissertation, “Aim, Decision, Adventure: An Inquiry into Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Creative Purpose.” We hit it off right from the start. I didn’t know that he would become a close family friend who would be at my mother’s 85th birthday party in the spring of 2012.

Ben and I quickly got on friendly terms that fall in 1971, perhaps partly due to our both having Southern background, or the fact that we were both ‘news junkies’ who enjoyed sharing reactions to news events, or because he enjoyed helping me with my French (and English) usage. Almost every evening, we would go together to the Yale Commons (main dining hall), sometimes with my roommates Adrian Sanchez and Douglas Daly or other Bingham residents. After supper Ben and I would go without fail to the Law School and watch the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Ben always followed politics and current events avidly. It was quite entertaining to see his reactions to various news items—he was sort of woefully indulgent towards much of the parade of folly that made up the news. His opinions were sometimes tinged with a bit of sadness over a tragic event, or a hint of scorn for some manipulative, lying politician, but he never expressed malice. He also took an almost childlike delight in unexpected and improbable events—for example, years later he was beside himself with amusement and glee over the exploit of the teenage German pilot Mathias Rust, who penetrated Soviet air defense systems and landed a Cessna next to Red Square in 1987. 
In the fall of 1971, Ben was practicing to give a concert of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. He didn't have a piano in his modest two-room dorm suite, so sometimes he would practice on an old beater of an upright piano in the unheated basement of Bingham, wearing his brown corduroy coat and leaning toward or away from the keyboard with an ecstatic expression. He was broadening my musical horizons as we would read the New York Times and listen to albums from his collection of Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin, and various composers, performed by Ruth Laredo, Glenn Gould, Rudolph Serkin, and others. 
Ben had a great sense of humor and it was fun to make him laugh. One of the freshman students in Bingham Hall was from Texas, and was studying French, of which Ben was a master. The student spoke French with a pronounced Texas accent. I would crack Ben up by saying with mock seriousness, “Well, I’d better get back to my room and finish reading La Canta-tree-ees Shooo-ooove,” exaggerating the Southern-accented pronunciation. Somewhere in storage I have a copy of the Harbrace College Handbook that Ben had used for years and which he gave me as a part of his never-ending, good-natured attempt to encourage me in the precise, grammatical usage of English. It has the same kind of forceful underlinings and finely scribbled marginalia that he made with a Bic pen in his copy of Whitehead’s Process and Reality while finishing his dissertation. 
At his parents’ house in Montgomery, Ben's mother would load him up with food to bring back to New Haven, to help him economize—the less he spent on food, the more he could spend on records. He would make tuna salad and we would eat it on Ritz crackers in his suite sometimes. We drove down to Sam Goody’s record shop in NYC one time and Ben loaded up on records.
Because my parents lived in Chapel Hill and Ben’s in Montgomery, we developed a routine. For the rest of the four years I was in college, we would drive his cars between New Haven and Chapel Hill at the beginning and end of each semester (first a red VW station wagon, later a green Volvo station wagon—a station wagon was needed in order to haul the bulk quantities of tuna, Ritz crackers and other provisions). He would break up the long drive from Connecticut to Alabama by overnighting at my parents' house in Chapel Hill. Ben loved to eat—slowly, somewhat meticulously, being especially fond of classic Southern cooking, such as turnip greens. My mother would always have them for him when he came to my parents' house, as he did dozens of times over the years. He played wonderfully on our baby grand piano to the delight of our family and other guests. Since my brother Bobby graduated from Yale three years after I did, Ben's New Haven-Chapel Hill drives continued another three years, and indeed as long as Ben was at Yale, and Ben's visits (and ours to his concerts and other events) continued after he came to Duke.
Some years later, I met Ben’s parents and spent the night at their home in Montgomery. Ben visited rural Chickasaw County, Miss. in January 1976, where I was living for a while on my grandparents’ farm. He drove over from Montgomery, stayed in their house, and became friends with them, as he had already become friends with my parents, brothers, and other grandmother, and with neighbors in Chapel Hill. It was a special treat for my grandparents to attend my brother Robert’s graduation at Yale in 1978 and stay at Ben's apartment at Berkeley with my parents and me. Ben was the ever-gracious host. 
After his visit to my grandparents’ farm, Ben and I drove to his parents’ house in Montgomery and spent the night. His mother served us pig ears; his father showed how he fertilized their backyard pecan tree with potash. Ben’s father was from the Gullah people of the southeastern coast, like Clarence Thomas’s (there the similarity ends). In the Wards’ modest neighborhood, there was a steel mill across the street. Day and night its machinery produced a metallic clanging and a heavy thumping, but the Wards were used to it. Virtually in the shadow of this mill, Ben had added a room onto the house to hold his enormous collection of recordings (LPs). 
Ben and I visited western N.C. together in 1976 on a memorable trip. He visited my parents and brother in Europe in 1982 when my dad was teaching in Belgium.
It was always possible to make Ben laugh by constructing (either deliberately or inadvertently) a sentence which started out ok but then rambled and ended with a preposition; or which garbled subject and pronoun agreement; or by alluding to some of the improbable characters who had peopled news events. We brought up names like Mathias Rust, Laszlo Toth, Fanne Fox, and other footnotes to history over the years, infallibly provoking laughter. Never did I bring up such a name, no matter how obscure or fleetingly notorious, which Ben could not instantly identify.
I saw Ben less often after I moved to Russia in 1994, although usually at least once a year, sometimes more. I went with him one night and helped him serve food in downtown Durham and was impressed at how enthusiastically he threw himself into it and how much it meant to him.
When Ben was a graduate student at Yale, the Vietnam war was under way, and Ben was draft-eligible. He was against the war and would not have served in Vietnam. His solution was to fast for a whole month (no solid food at all) prior to his Selective Service physical, thus failing it because he was so emaciated. (Ben was still very skinny when I first knew him.) After flunking his Selective Service physical, he went to the well-known restaurant George and Harry's, and tried to eat, but couldn't. No flight to Canada for Ben if the application of iron-willed self-discipline could solve his draft problem without his having to leave New Haven! Once he took me to George and Harry's, where we had a hearty meal and he pointed out where he had once sat and tried to break his fast. 
Ben was a friend of many well-connected and wealthy people, but his heart was in inspiring students with a love of learning, and in serving the homeless people in Durham, not in flattering the powerful. He was a frequent attendee at the Hilton Head, SC Renaissance Weekend gatherings that a wealthy former U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James held at New Year's year after year. Knowing that my parents would really enjoy those events, Ben got them invited. There is a nice photo of my mom beaming with Hillary Clinton, and although Ben was not in the photo, he had in effect orchestrated it.
The last time I saw Ben was at my mother's 85th birthday party in Chapel Hill in April 2012. He was somewhat stooped and using a cane, but upbeat and effervescent. My former Yale professor Bill Ferris was there, and he and Ben and my brother Bobby and I enjoyed reminiscing about the old days at Yale.
Ben had a great influence on me and on many other people, and set a splendid example. We were all very fortunate to have known him.

-Patrick Murphy


Ben was a light-filled person who was always excited to do something new. He threw himself into learning Arabic with the enthusiasm of a child and when he had studied the language for two years he volunteered to help students. I once asked him and the Pitchforks to sing a Fairuz song at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association. Not only was he delighted to comply but he filled the singers with such joy that the Arabs in the audience were deeply moved. I am deeply saddened at his departure.

- miriam cooke

Colleague at Duke University.

A quiet, articulate, and compassionate man, Ben Ward was a true intellectual whose pleasant smile and sincere manner always endeared him to those around him. I remember well, the time Ben invited the academic deans of Trinity College at Duke University to join him at the Shelter in downtown Durham to prepare and serve a meal to the residents. It was a memorable experience when deans Martina Bryant, Kay Singer, and I joined others to cut, chop, slide and serve a wonderful meal as supervised by Ben. He was an excellent cook who seemed to enjoy every minute of the two to three hours in the kitichen. It was a joy to work with this man who was an outstanding scholar, a talented musician and a man who respected all people. Rest in Peace, Benjamin F. Ward, Jr.

-Caroline L. Lattimore