Ben Ward's legacy as mentor and friend to extend throughout Duke and Durham
Benjamin Ward’s official role at the University was adjunct associate professor of philosophy. His title, however, does not even begin to capture his involvement in both the Duke and Durham communities.
Ward died Saturday at the age of 65, after a three-year battle with colon cancer. In addition to teaching philosophy, Ward taught courses in German Studies, comparative literature and Arabic. He was faculty advisor to a cappella group The Pitchforks, and helped begin Duke's faculty-in-residence program.
In addition to his extensive involvement with University life, Ward was also engaged in the local community. He volunteered regularly at Urban Ministries of Durham and held season tickets to Durham Bull games.
But colleagues, students and friends remember him as much for his character as they do for his accomplishments.
“He had a great love for music, love for Duke University, love for this community—but basically a love for people,” said his friend Joe Harvard, who met Ward more than 20 years ago through his work with Urban Ministries.
Born in Baltimore, Ward grew up in Montgomery, Ala. and Berkeley, Calif. He began playing the piano at the age of six and eventually started to perform regularly at the Montgomery Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
The church’s minister was Martin Luther King, Jr., and when he was just 10 years old, Ward played piano at the honorary dinner for King’s Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
A few years later, he played the organ at King’s funeral.
Ward went on to earn his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College, followed by a Ph.D from Yale University. At Yale, he crossed paths with fellow doctoral student Richard Brodhead—now Duke’s president.
“I knew him when he was this youthful wonder boy,” Brodhead said. “You don’t meet that many people who are extraordinary pianists and philosophers and students of Arabic.”
In 1980, Ward came to Duke. In addition to his teaching, he became chair of the Faculty Scholars Committee and associate dean for faculty programs—a role that allowed him to promote faculty-student interaction, which he was passionate about. One of his more notable accomplishments in the job was helping to spearhead the faculty-in-residence program. Most recently, Ward lived in Edens Quad as part of the program.
Also a prominent part of Ward’s Duke experience was his work with The Pitchforks. The group was formed around the time that Ward arrived at Duke, and he claimed to have known every Pitchfork in the group’s history and to have sung every song the Pitchforks have performed.
He served as a “father figure,” said senior Martavius Parrish, the Pitchforks’ assistant music director and a four-year member of the group.
“He loved the role of raising talent,” Brodhead recalled.
David Sanford, professor emeritus of philosophy, hired Ward in 1980 when he was chair of the philosophy department. He noted Ward's role at Duke as one that extended into many facets of University life.
"Ben’s versatility amazed everyone—new stories kept popping up," Sanford wrote in an email Tuesday. "In one of my favorites, he was frustrated that he could not obtain a suitable teaching time for a course in Arabic. So he didn’t teach Arabic that semester. Instead, he coached lacrosse."
But Ward’s dedication to mentoring was not limited to Duke. For nearly 25 years, he volunteered at Urban Ministries of Durham for two hours a day, five days a week—and occasionally on weekends as well. He primarily helped serve dinner to shelter residents and others in need of a meal.
Urban Ministries facilities manager Kenneth Mauney recalled how Ward was always friendly and upbeat, particularly with the people who did the cleaning work in the kitchen—participants in Urban Ministries’ recovery program, a live-in drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for homeless adults. Mauney first met Ward when he was a member of the program nine years ago and described Ward’s unwavering kindness and support, even serving as a reference for a job when Mauney began to look for employment.
“He was just a blessing to everybody,” Mauney said.
In 1997, Ward received Duke’s Humanitarian Service Award for his work with Urban Ministries.
“He was just a very genuine human being who reached out to all kinds of people,” Harvard said.
Ward was buried in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery Tuesday. A service of remembrance will be held Jan. 18 in Duke Chapel at 3 p.m.
“I was just one among many of his friends in Durham, but every time I saw him…it was like I was the most important friend he had,” Harvard said. “He treated everyone like that, affirming you by his smile.”