Donald H. Ballou was born on March 28, 1908, in Chester, Vermont. He was a graduate of Yale University with a major in English, and then he received M.A. and Ph. D. degrees in mathematics at Harvard University. He taught at Georgia Institute of Technology for eight years, meanwhile he co-authored two textbooks in mathematics, both of which were well received and widely used.
In 1942, Dr. Ballou joined the faculty of Middlebury College, becoming the first faculty member in the mathematics department with a Ph. D degree. He became chairman of the mathematics department in 1954 and was named Dana Professor of Mathematics in 1971. In the 1970s, he initiated the development of a program in computer studies; the college named the computer lab in his honor. Dr. Ballou retired in 1973 but was still active in college activities. On September 15, 2008, he died at the age of 100.
According to Professor Bruce Peterson, a former student and colleague of Professor Ballou, each lecture was written on one single 3 by 5 card, outlined on one side, homework assignment on the other. "The details were in his head, and the lectures were models of organization, precision and lucidity." Says Prof. Peterson, "I had multivariable calculus class with him and we met Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 o'clock. The Saturday class was only a problem when it interfered with my early weekend malt beverage research."
As a professor, recalled by some of his former students, Dr. Ballou was very strict by today's standards. He had required attendance and pop quizzes, but he was also very generous with his time. Although some people considered him reserved and shy, he was very helpful and supportive. "I got a call from Don asking me to apply for a position at Middlebury," said Prof. Peterson when he was completing his Ph. D at Syracuse University, "But I was still very intimidated, not least by the knowledge that I didn't belong on the same faculty as Donald Ballou. I knew I was not ready for this job. He knew I was."
An article marking Dr. Ballou's retirement in the school magazine described his style: "He speaks quietly, with a modesty excessive in view of his contributions, and hides his dry, village wit until the appropriate moment, when it seems to issue forth in tidy Spencerian script." Mathematics majors considered him "irreplaceable" and thought his courses the most valuable they took at Middlebury. A colleague described Ballou's lectures as "brilliantly organized," "He's totally on top of his material at all times: he never makes any mistakes!"
Professor Mike Olinick, who worked with Dr. Ballou for three years, added, "I was most impressed by his amazing memory. When we had our rededication of the computer lab at Bicentennial Hall, we asked him to give a talk. He was more than 90 years old at that time, but without any notes, he clearly remembered every single date, the exact amount, and all other details that even young people can't remember. His speech was clear and fascinating, and people were surprised to see how organized he still was.
Speaking of Dr. Ballou's work for the computer science program, Prof. Olinick said he was definitely a pioneer. In order to add computing into the school's courses, Ballou himself went to Carnegie Mellon University to study the programming language GATE and the internal organization of computers, and studied languages FORTRAN and FAP at MIT. Upon returning to Middlebury in 1963, he started the first computer course at Middlebury: Introduction to Digital Computers in the fall. Fifteen students attended this class. They rented a Card Punch machine for $60 a month and sent punched cards by mail to MIT for them to run there. It took about a week for the results to come back, and if there were any minor errors, they had to resubmit the cards. In a personal recollection about the beginning of computing at Middlebury, Ballou recalls that he made four trips to UVM in a semester with students so that they could run programs themselves on the machine there. Later, he arranged a remote hook-up with Dartmouth College, and spent lots of time negotiating the price with Dartmouth so that Middlebury could have this program at a lower cost.
"He was totally visionary about starting computing at Middlebury," said Professor Olinick. "In the 60s when computers were only available at very few big research institutes, he decided computing would definitely be a most important skill in the future and tried really hard to initiate this program. Now the computer science has its own department and own lab in Bicentennial Hall, all thanks to Don."
Even after retirement, he had been very active. He came back regularly to mathematics seminars until several years ago. "He would always sit in the front row, listening carefully and then ask questions. He seemed to enjoy student thesis presentations most," recalled Prof. Peter Schumer. "Sometimes he would also give talks on the history of the department or about the first Putnam Exam he went to."
The textbooks he co-authored, Analytical Geometry, and Plane and Spherical Trignometry, with Tables, were widely used. The style is straightforward and approachable. It is not as entertaining as the style of some of the textbooks today, but still it's very informative and students can learn a great deal from them. The problems were carefully selected and serve as very good practice material. He also did some reviews for books; they are objective, somewhat critical but incisive.
For more than 60 years, Don Ballou had been very much involved in the development of the mathematics department of Middlebury College. His contribution to us was immense; he broadened the width and depth of the scope of the Mathematics Department, encouraged many students to pursue their passion in mathematics, and left us with many valuable books and thoughts that will surely last.
A link to the obituary online:
By Ying (Daisy) Zhuo