Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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If there is a first family of Arlington, it would be the Balls. These landowners going back to the Revolutionary War lent their name to our crossroads neighborhood of Ballston.

Last month I got the chance to pose questions to fifth-generation descendant Barbara Ball Savage. She’s the daughter of the illustrious Frank Ball (1885-1966), the early 20th-century attorney, state senator and historian who raised Barbara and her three siblings in our county’s iconic Glebe House. Now those are deep-dyed Arlingtonians.

When Barbara was born on Election Day 1923 (to a mother from the landed Shreve family), her father Frank was a progressive candidate for state Senate working against the powerful Byrd Machine. (Ironically, he became Senate seatmates with Harry Flood Byrd.) He would later push to end the poll tax.

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His earlier years as commonwealth’s attorney meant he prosecuted hard criminals at a time when Rosslyn was so dangerous, the Virginia farmers bringing produce to D.C. markets were terrified to pass through, Barbara said. The Ku Klux Klan went after him. Her father became first president of the Arlington Bar Association, joined the State Welfare Board, and helped launch a Depression-era Arlington newspaper The Chronicle.

Like his forebears, Frank Ball Sr. was also a life-long pillar of Mt. Olivet Methodist Church. It’s the county’s oldest, founded before the Civil War by an assembly of Arlington gentry—Ball, Marcey, Wunder, Minor, Birch, Payne and Veitch.

In his 1965 church history, Ball tells of finding bones in the cemetery that he suspected were those of Union soldiers. He found it odd that none of tombstones are so identified even though federal troops “destroyed the pews’ to set up a hospital after the battles of Bull Run.

Ball honors Sue Landon Vaughn, the founder of Memorial Day who rests at Mt. Olivet, on whose grave Ball family members continue placing flowers. His other nifty Arlington memories include sightings of President Woodrow Wilson traveling by car to the Washington Golf and Country Club. “Many times I have seen him stop along the road and ask pedestrians to climb in and have a ride,” Ball wrote.

In his preface, Ball gives his address as The Glebe, Arlington, Virginia. That two-century-old octagonal building on North 17th St. (featured on phone books of my youth) bequeathed Barbara Ball fond memories of “seven outside doors that were never locked.” In 1956, it hosted the first meeting of Arlington Historical Society.

Barbara Ball attended Thomas Nelson Page School (now Science Focus) and graduated from Washington-Lee High School in 1946. “The whole county was so proud of W-L; it was the center of so much when Arlington was rural,” she said. She met her future husband, an FBI agent, at George Washington University and later sold gifts at National Orthopaedic Hospital.

Barbara Ball gave me a tattered copy of the Arlington Daily from Jan. 5, 1950. The front page carried a photo of Frank Ball Sr. presiding over a luncheon feting Jim Thorpe, in town to receive the Washington Touchdown Club’s “Greatest World Athlete Award.”

Ball’s ancestral graves can be visited at Washington Blvd. and Kirkwood Rd. (Other Ball tombstones from the 18th century line the yard of Central United Methodist Church on Fairfax Dr.)

But with only daughters in the young generations, she confirmed, the Ball name for direct descendants has effectively ended.

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***

A favorite Arlington teacher died last Thursday. Betty Ann Armstrong, who taught me fifth and sixth grade at James Madison Elementary, also proved a powerhouse in a later countywide curriculum job.

Raised in Weldon, N.C., she was memorable for her lean frame, tall brunette hairdo and skills in basketball and kickball. I still strive for her exacting standards in double-checking my writing and math.

News of her passing from lung cancer at her Arlington home prompted a flurry of email reminisces from former students now in their 60s. She showed unforgettable classroom poise in handling everything from silly pranks to the Kennedy assassination.

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