Doug Robinson: Dynamo Fred Ball wishes he were still working

Published: Saturday, March 22 2014 8:47 p.m. MDT

Portrait of Fred Ball in his home on Friday, March 14, 2014.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Fred Ball doesn’t know what to do with himself these days. “I’m lousy at retirement,” he says. “I’d love to still be working.”

Ball is 81 years old, but age isn’t what forced him to the sideline. He’s a scientific marvel, a subject of curiosity for doctors, because he should have been dead a long time ago. Who survives 1½ decades after pancreatic cancer and having much of his plumbing removed?

He’s healthy now, and restless, perhaps because he has always been so relentlessly busy. He was Salt Lake’s unofficial Man About Town for 40 years. He was always in the middle of everything — the Chamber of Commerce, the Salt Lake business community, TV and radio shows, LDS Church affairs, political and business events, various boards and charities, the banking business, and the recruitment of the Salt Lake Olympics, the Delta hub and the Utah Jazz.

He forged at least four careers — an executive with a regional trucking company, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, a vice president at Zions Bank and host of his own long-running radio shows, but he also had lesser roles in a broad array of community, business, arts and church organizations. When he was hired by Zions Bank, his new boss came right out with it: “We’re not hiring you for your banking expertise; we’re hiring you for your contacts.” No one made more contacts or did more networking than Fred Ball.

On the coffee table in Ball’s living room is a book he wrote for his children titled, “I’m not Lucky ... I’m Blessed: Memories from the Life of Fred S. Ball.” He’s now writing a second book, to tell about the life he has had since the first book was printed. He’s had such an eventful life that it takes two books to tell.

He sat knee to knee with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office. Then-Vice President George W. Bush called to ask a favor. He met with International Olympic Committee presidents Juan Antonio Samaranch and Jacques Rogge. He hosted political heavyweights Margaret Thatcher, George Schultz and Mikael Gorbachev and media stars Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. He worked with Larry Miller and Jon Huntsman and local political, church and business leaders. He worked with Robert Redford in the early days of the Sundance Film Festival. He played golf with Billy Casper, Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus.

Not bad for a man who grew up in the back room of a small grocery store, where his family lived until he was 14. His father, Fred Sr., was a hard-working employee at the Ogden Union Railway Depot from age 16 to 65. He cleaned cars for years before becoming an oiler and car inspector.

Fred Sr.’s biggest aspiration was to become a conductor, because conductors sat in the caboose smoking cigars and reading newspapers next to a stove. This was as good as a job could be in his mind. Later, when Junior was working for the Chamber of Commerce, he couldn’t understand what his son did for a living.

“They pay you to go to meetings?” he said. “I don’t get it. Son, you could have been a conductor by now!”

Fred Sr. never owned a car or a home in his life. He rode a bike to work, carrying a blackjack on the handlebars to knock off the toughs who populated 25th Street. Reclusive and private, he saw one movie his life. He and his wife, Gladys, patronized a restaurant together only once — on their 50th anniversary, they went to a drive-in window and took the food home.

“My parents never had anything, but we never went hungry,” says Ball. “My dad worked hard and was very reclusive. He never saw me play a ballgame or talk in church and never went to my graduations. He worked so hard during the war years with the troop trains. Sixteen hours a day. When he was home, he was asleep. I never had a conversation with him.”

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