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Local 97-year-old woman may need to rethink her identity

Huntington resident Zada “Susie” Ball has been writing poetry for years, but it wasn’t until she struck up a friendship with a Huntington University professor that the first of her poems — a haiku — was published.
Huntington resident Zada “Susie” Ball has been writing poetry for years, but it wasn’t until she struck up a friendship with a Huntington University professor that the first of her poems — a haiku — was published. Photo provided.

Originally published Aug. 25, 2011.

For most of her life, Zada "Susie" Ball thought of herself as a pianist.

But where we start out is often not where we end up.

"I think maybe I'm going to have to rethink my identity," the 97-year-old Ball said as she contemplated the recent publication of her poetry in Modern Haiku, a leading English language haiku magazine. "Maybe I turned out to be a poet anyway."

It was the piano, though, that launched her journey from her birthplace of Fort Smith, AR, to Huntington, IN. First stop was Oklahoma City University, because that was where her piano teacher had been named dean of fine arts. She was serious about music, having studied since age 6.

At the university, a handsome journalism professor caught her eye. That young man turned out to be Huntington resident James H. Ball, who had been hired by the university on a temporary contract. When the temporary contract ended in 1933, Zada and James set out for Huntington as Mr. and Mrs. Ball.

The family grew to include two sons, and Zada and her boys followed James to Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama as he served his country during World War II. She treasures the three years she spent in Alabama for the musical opportunities that time provided her.

"I had the opportunity to hear some of the world's greatest musicians in concert," she says, closing her eyes as she remembers the music. "Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Horowitz, Lily Pons."

And then there was Rachmaninoff.

"It was a Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis," she remembers. "It was several years before he died."
Back in Huntington, she was frequently called on to play the piano at club meetings and other events. She occasionally served as accompanist for a female vocalist, and among the clubs she joined was one called Evening Musical.

"That was a wonderful club. It was for anyone who was interested in music of any sort," she says.

The group often met at the North Jefferson Street home of Gail Lancaster, manager of the Huntington Theater who, Ball marvels, had "two grand pianos in his living room."

Occasionally, she'd take a break from music to write what she calls "jingles," little poems to say thank you or get well to someone.

"It was just a casual thing," she says.

Mainly, though, she focused on being a wife and mother - an occupation that she loved, even though activist Betty Friedan was informing women in the 1960s that they should "get out of the kitchen, go into the marketplace and establish their own identity," Ball says.

"I was completely unaware that I didn't already have my own identity," she says. "I loved being a housewife. I could do whatever I wanted."

Then she discovered Phyllis McGinley, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet whose attitude more reflected Ball's sentiments.
"She maintained that a woman could be fulfilled by being a wife and mother," Ball says. "I just agreed with her so much that I wrote a poem about that. A long one."

She jumped into the field of poetry in the late 1960s, basing her poems on seemingly offhand comments she'd hear as she went about her everyday business. For example, after hearing a woman mention that she was working on a program about pairs for her club meeting, Ball went home and wrote a poem about pairs. Her topics, though, also included subjects as far removed from pairs as the war in Kuwait.

But, she says, "I never considered myself a poet. It was just something I did; it was just a part of my life. Primarily, I would identify myself as a pianist of classical music."

And, indeed, a piano does occupy a corner of Ball's living room. But the poetry remained, and took on a new incarnation.

While grieving after the death of her husband in 1992, Ball says a poem took form in her head.

"I wrote it down and I said, ‘Well, that's a haiku,'" she says.

The specialized form of poetry is based on the Japanese haiku, with the number of syllables, lines and even the topic tightly regulated.

"I wondered why I was writing haiku," she says. "I didn't seem to choose to."

Ball continued to write and, several years ago, a mutual acquaintance suggested she contact Dr. Del Doughty, associate professor of English at Huntington University and a published poet whose works include haiku.
She picked up the phone and called ("out of the blue," she says); Doughty paid her a visit.

"It was almost two years ago, in November," Doughty remembers. "One afternoon, she called me up and introduced herself."

Doughty paid Ball a visit.

"She read her haiku to me and she recited some of her poems, pretty much off the top of her head," he says.
As the two struck up a friendship, she showed him more of her work.

"I watched his face to see if I got any idea what he was thinking," Ball says. "Once in a while, he'd smile."

"When she's good, she's really, really good," Doughty says.

He particularly remembers the poem she wrote about feminism, a piece he says holds up even today.

Doughty sent in a couple of Ball's pieces for possible publication. Last winter, they learned that one of her pieces had been accepted for publication in this summer's edition of Modern Haiku.

Ball was blown away.

"It just seems so completely unbelievable that my few little words should end up in a respected journal," she says. "I never considered myself a poet. It was just something I did from way back when."