Bob Ball: “I Felt Like the Luckiest Guy in the World Then”

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bob and horseBy TJ Acena, PQ Monthly
When I meet Bob Ball at his home up in the West Hills he apologizes that he can’t shake my hand. His infant son Parker can’t leave the house or meet outside people because his immune system is weak. Paintings sit propped up against the wall. “Have you just moved in?†I ask. “We moved in last April.†There just hasn’t been a lot of time to get settled. Ball’s life is busier than usual. Ball is one of those people who actually comes from humble beginnings, growing up in Knappa, Ore., a small logging town outside Astoria. There were only 35 kids in his graduating class. He still knows many of those who he went to school with, but growing up gay in a small town is lonely. “It was a very small town. There was a feeling of distance from everyone else because I led a life where I put up barriers and walls.†It wasn’t until attending the University of Oregon that he really even understood what the word “gay†meant, and then he threw himself full force into the gay rights movement. He was the first board chair of the MPowerment Project in Eugene, a community center for young gay men, and also served on the board for the group HIV/AIDS Resources, which served the Southern Willamette Valley. When Ballot Measure 9 appeared in 1992, which would have prevented Oregon from “promoting†homosexuality, Ball stood up on the Ferry Street Bridge holding a “No on 9†sign. In 1993 he attended the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation along with hundreds of thousands of others. During college Ball had begun to buy buildings in Portland, and soon began to split his time between Portland and Eugene. He bought an apartment building and began living there, as well as a 10 room house next to it. He began to rent the rooms in the house to friends he knew who had HIV. “Back then there weren’t places for people to go to even live,†Bob said. “They ended up passing away. I had done so much work with HIV and AIDS by then that I decided I couldn’t do that kind of work anymore after seeing people I knew die.†Ball knew he needed a new cause to get behind, but it wasn’t clear to him until the day a man hopped out of a car, came up to him on the street, put a chrome pistol to his forehead, and demanded his wallet. “I actually ran after the car to get the plate number,†Ball said. After that he remembered picking up a volunteer form from a community policing office behind Music Millennium on NW Twenty-Third. Ball spent his volunteer time helping community members fill out problem identification forms and organizing community workshops. One day a friend who interned at the Police Bureau brought in a brochure for the Reserve Officer Program for the Portland Police Bureau. “We decided, hey, let’s do this together.†Becoming a reserve officer means going through all the same written and physical tests, interviews, and background checks as a police officer, and soon Ball completed the program. He found himself in uniform walking the beat with other officers, volunteering outside work, and facing the same dangers as them, too. Ball won a medal of valor from the Portland Police Bureau for rescuing a woman being held hostage without using lethal force on the perpetrator. Ball currently holds the rank of Commander in the Reserve Officer Program, supervising the other reserves, and trying to help pass bills expanding the authority and protections of those in the reserve program. When I ask him about serving as a gay man in uniform Ball recounts an incident during his first year, while on Patrol at the Rose Festival, when fellow officers and some navy personal made some cruel remarks about gays. “I was very surprised; that night I went home and I cried. That was in 1996. Today I can’t imagine anything like that.†In fact, in 1996 Ball marched in the Pride parade in uniform, holding his then-partner’s hand. In 2011 Ball was leading the Pride parade on his mounted patrol. “It was a privilege. The police officers I know now are fairly reflective of society as a whole. They are the finest people you could ever imagine working with.†That same year he was asked to join the board of the Friends of the Mounted Patrol, right before the city announced that the program was going to be cut. Saving the Mounted Patrol might be what Ball is known best for now. The city asked the Friends of the Mounted Patrol to raise $400,000 to keep it going for another two years. Within five weeks they raised $300,000. The patrol is back in the budget now. Mind you, all of this was extracurricular. Ball has also been a real estate developer during this whole time and done quite well for himself. He even managed to get out of the market before the real estate bubble collapsed in 2008. “I felt like the luckiest guy in the world then,†he says. DSC_5613-2In 2012 Ball and his partner of nine years, Grant Jones, decided to start a family. The two found a gestational carrier and conceived twin boys. They decided to name them Parker and Wyatt, family names, names which were also shared by some of Ball’s recent building projects. On July 4th they got a call from the carrier; her water broke, months too early. Doctors were not sure the twins would survive; a few days later it was decided that they would perform a caesarean section. For the next month and a half the boys never left St. Vincent’s hospital. Ball and Jones were there every day, often all day. They were given dolls to wear around which were left with the boys to simulate their smell. Sometimes the boys’ hearts would stop, but this was common among premature babies, and, though terrifying at first, the doctors showed Ball and Jones that simple touches would start their hearts again. “You learn to live with it,†he said. And then near the end of August they got a call from the hospital. There were complications with Wyatt. It soon became clear there was nothing more that could be done. “We were always on the same page,†Ball says of his partner. The machines were turned off. Ball and Jones took their son outside for the first time in his life to say goodbye to him. “You’re in the depths of despair but two days later his brother had to have his first bath. It was a moment of joy in the deepest valley.†A service for Wyatt was held at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Father Brennan embraced the couple with open arms even when Ball described himself as “not a regular attender.†Hundreds attended. “That was a period where all of the volunteer work I had ever done came back to help me. Strangers left food at our door. It was overwhelming.†Last Christmas Ball sent out over 2,000 Christmas cards, not wanting to miss anyone who had been there for him. Now Parker is home from the hospital; Jones brings him out to say hello to me. He looks healthy, just like any other infant, and Jones gushes over his infant son for a few moments. “Not one second that I’ve been with Parker hasn’t been pure joy,†Ball tells me. I ask Ball if he and Jones are married. He says no, “We never felt like we needed a piece of paper.†But that changed after Parker came home. “We have some estate things to work out. We’re trying to figure out when it’s going to happen here in Oregon. I wanted my boys to grow up in a world where it’s normal for their dads to be together.†As marriage seems imminent in Oregon, this proud father will undoubtedly witness another sure sign of equality’s determined march.   Editor’s Note: We intended to include many more “queers in uniform†(specifically veterans, in partnership with Senator Wyden’s office) in this issue, but unfortunately the stories weren’t ready by the time we went to press. They’ll appear in future issues. If you know a vet who deserves some recognition, email Daniel@PQMonthly.com.