University of Vermont

Department of Xxxxx

Interview: Professor Emeritus Howard Ball

Howard Ball
Justice is everything to Professor Emeritus Howard Ball. "It’s on my license plate. It’s been my life," he says. (Photo: Jon Reidel)

Since Professor Emeritus Howard Ball’s so-called retirement in 2002, he’s written five books, completed two Distinguished Fullbrights and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. UVM Today sat down with the former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in July at Henderson’s Café to talk about his new book At Liberty to Die: The Battle for Death with Dignity in America and his next book on the important work performed by forensic specialists trying to identify bodies from the Bosnian War.

UVM Today: You could be kicking back and playing golf right now, but instead continue to add to the 30-plus books you’ve written on constitutional law, civil liberties, civil rights, and the U.S. Supreme Court. What drives you at this point in your career?  

Howard Ball: I do it because I love it. I don’t see it as work; I see it as dealing with issues that come up that I want to find out more about, and if important enough, write a book about. All I have to do as a political scientist who is dedicated to social injustice is pick up a newspaper or turn on the television. Given my love of exploring, it’s not hard to find subjects that interest me and that I’m passionate about. I also play golf, take walks, and even have some horses that keep me company. This is what I’ll do until I kick the bucket. I’m headed to the gym right now. I had a heart attack a few years ago and was 65 pounds heavier, so I like to try and keep the weight down. I feel good.

Your latest book on dying with dignity seems like a departure from some of your previous works. What drew you to this subject?

I had written a book earlier about the role of the court in the life of individuals related to birth, abortion, marriage and death issues. Because the court didn’t open up the Constitution to enable people who were terminal to get this kind of assistance it was left to the politics of each state. It was an example of the impact of the courts on individual rights.

I’d also taught courses overseas and at Dartmouth and UVM that focused on death and dying, and what struck me was how interested young people were in the subject of death and dying. And then it dawned on me that because people are living longer, these college kids are seeing their grandparents later in life, which means they’re also seeing them suffer chronic injury, illness, cancer and dementia. So they are aware of the suffering that the patient experiences, but also the suffering that the family endures. So when I asked them why they were here they'd say, "Well, my grandmother died, and she didn’t know anyone anymore because she had dementia," or, "My grandfather had cancer and a lot of pain that he wanted to end, but no one could do anything." The kids were really interested in this question, so a light bulb went off for me that people of all ages are interested in this issue.

You said earlier that you are already working on your next book. What’s it about?

On one of my Fullbrights, I visited the scenes of destruction I had written about in an earlier book Prosecuting War Crimes and Genocide. I went to Bosnia and visited the site of the most horrible genocide of the war in Srebrenica and started meeting forensic specialists whose commitment and dedication just blew my mind. I was so impressed with their guts and scientific acumen that I said, "I’ve got to write a book about them." A number of them are lawyers who switched careers and became forensic administrators and worked with surviving families to get blood samples and other information. One guy had his entire family with him. I have pictures of families not in front of Yellowstone or Disney, but at a death site. They are completely dedicated.

You also see people from Physicians for Human Rights, who have come as forensic specialists from all over the world, using the latest technological devices to identify people and burial sites. There are no maps for these places. This has happened before in places like Germany and Poland where people were executed and removed and property given to ethnic Germans, so what happened in Bosnia is nothing new. What is new is the science and forensic work and DNA advancements. Of the more than 50,000 people who had disappeared by 1995 (in the Bosnain War), only 100 had been found and identified. You had over 120,000 killed by the end of the war. By 2001, they had developed a pattern of scraping bones and taking the DNA from them. Before it was to be used successfully they had to get blood samples from surviving family members, especially the mothers of the missing. Within a year they showed an increase of 500 percent identification, so this was a breakthrough and is now being used in Iraq and other areas that are post-revolutionary war zones. There are still about 15,000 people unaccounted for.

There seems to be a theme throughout all your books despite a wide range of topics.

The basic theme around all of my books is the idea of justice. It’s on my license plate. It’s been my life. I grew up in the civil rights era. I was one of first in New York City to join the protest against Woolworths for discriminating against blacks in the south. I marched as a student at Hunter College in the Bronx, which was an amazing experience. The famous author and sociologist Michael Harrington who wrote Poverty in America was the head of our sociology department. He brought a lot of local college students together in New York City to support civil rights in a number of ways, including protest marches, petitions, etc., so I’ve always had a focus on justice.

I give money to Hunter College every year, because without that free education I could not have afforded to go to college. We were a poor family living in a tenement. When I graduated in 1960, I was paying $12 a semester for what was called a bursars fee. They even gave us our books for free. I remember the kids complaining because it was raised from $8 to $12. There are so many of us who but for the grace of God and public university became educated. I was a first-generation student. I remember my father, who was a laborer, was so pissed off at me because I was going to school instead of working. It was a struggle, but I don’t know what I would have become without that opportunity.