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.”

Gladys, who worked as a lunch lady at the school, was her husband’s opposite — outgoing, involved in the community, social. She became a member of school lunch organizations at the state and national levels and served on the boards of various organizations.

Fred Jr., the middle of three children, made his own way, working his way through Weber State as a brakeman on the railroad while also serving as student body president. He earned a scholarship to the University of Utah, and after graduation he moved to California to accept a sales position with the IML Freight trucking company.

A few years later, IML urged him to pursue an MBA and offered to foot the bill while continuing to pay his salary. He completed his graduate studies at Stanford while also spending part of each day working at IML.

After being transferred to Salt Lake City, he joined the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, and in 1970 he was hired away from IML to lead the financially strapped chamber. “They needed someone who could read a balance sheet,” says Ball. During the next few years he built it from the smallest chamber in the West to the largest. They were bigger than their counterparts in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Seattle and Phoenix, with membership soaring from 1,000 to almost 3,200.

A chamber’s purpose, of course, is to promote a healthy business environment, and Ball “lived on the (Capitol) Hill. We were not promoting laws as much as fighting anti-business laws.” He spent several nights a week at various city council meetings around the valley and worked closely with county and federal legislators.

Ball’s tenure at the chamber was marked by the arrival of some of the most momentous events and businesses in the history of the state — the Delta Hub, the Jazz and the Olympics. Ball played a role in wooing all of them to Utah.

The pursuit of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics turned into a worldwide controversy when it was revealed that Salt Lake City’s bid committee had given cash and gifts to IOC members. It was the same thing every bidding city had done for decades, but suddenly it was made public and criminal.

Ball met with Olympic officials in Europe, entertained IOC members in Salt Lake, raised money and promoted the Salt Lake Games. He also recruited Tom Welch and Dave Johnson to lead the bidding effort to win the games. Ultimately, they were made the fall guys when the scandal broke, by both Salt Lake and IOC officials.

“I feel bad for what happened to Tom and Dave,” says Ball. “When we lost to Nagano by four votes (to host the 1998 Games), we were giving away boxes of salt water taffy and they (Nagano) were giving away Toyotas. We were not playing the game. Billy Payne (CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games) told us, ‘You gotta treat these guys better,’ and we did and we got in trouble for it.”

Ball, who wound up being called by the federal government to testify, attended many Winter Games, and he believes there has never been a better Winter Games than Salt Lake’s in 2002. “We predicted that the facilities would be used after the games were gone and that someday we would see a lot of Utah kids walking in the opening ceremonies as athletes,” says Ball. “Both of those things have happened.”

The arrival of the Jazz in Utah was almost as problematic as the Olympics. Ball flew to New Orleans with Wendell Ashton — chairman of the chamber's board — to meet with Jazz owner Sam Battistone and woo the team to Salt Lake City. “Wendell wanted Salt Lake to be a major league city, and he knew baseball and Sunday football weren’t going to work here,” says Ball.

In 1977, the Jazz sold about 1,200 season tickets in New Orleans. Ball and Ashton told Battistone they could do better in Utah. They began a campaign to sell tickets in Salt Lake City before any team had even committed to move there. They sold 12,000. The Jazz came to Utah in 1978, but the team performed poorly and, predictably, ticket sales soured. The Jazz grew desperate. At one point they offered four season tickets for the price of one. Ball bought the first season tickets offered — six of them for $39 apiece, on Row 2, center court. Frank Layden, the team’s famously humorous coach, liked to tell the story of a fan who asked him what time the game started that night. “What time can you be there?” Layden replied.

Car magnate Larry H. Miller saved the team from leaving town when he bought the Jazz and applied his business acumen to the franchise. The arrival of Adrian Dantley, Rickey Green and Darrell Griffith made the team competitive. The arrival of John Stockton, Karl Malone and Jerry Sloan shortly thereafter made the Jazz an elite team, and the small-market team became one of the great success stories in professional sports.

As if all this weren’t enough to keep Ball more than occupied, he always had other side ventures. During the first decade of his work at the chamber he conducted marketing seminars around the country. He flew out of town on Friday evening and returned Sunday, usually accompanied by one of his four daughters. He also held several LDS Church positions, including assistant director of the LDS Church hosting organization, bishop and member of the Sunday School General Board. There was more. In the ’80s he co-hosted a Sunday afternoon show on KSL-TV called “Utah Business” with Keith McCord and later hosted a daily radio show called the “Metro Business Report.”

And still he got offers to do more. He received a call from Vice President Bush asking him if he would organize a chamber of commerce in Belize to kick-start the business community there as part of a Central American initiative. For a year Ball spent one week each month in Belize to carry out the assignment. He made his final report to Reagan and Cabinet member Caspar Weinberger in the White House.

“This was all heady stuff for a guy from Ogden,” he says.

After 25 years with the chamber, Ball announced his retirement in 1995 shortly after Salt Lake secured the Olympic bid. His retirement lasted only hours. Zions Bank hired him as senior vice president, and for the next 16 years he was a salesman again. Part of the job included hosting a daily radio show called “Speaking on Business” in which he featured a different company. He put 30,000 miles a year on his car driving to interviews with businesses in Utah and Idaho. He featured thousands of companies over the years. To this day, he is stopped in restaurants and stores by strangers who hear him speak.

I know that voice! You’re Fred Ball.

Ball might never have slowed down if circumstances hadn’t demanded otherwise. In 1999, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Surgeons removed most of his pancreas, gall bladder, stomach and small intestine and hoped for the best. He was told he had a 3 percent chance to live three months. He was hooked up to feeding and draining machines until his body learned to function again minus a few parts. After 6½ months, he was unhooked from the machines for four hours a day, so every day at 10 a.m. he raced to the bank to work until 2 and then raced back to the hospital to get hooked up again.

“I didn’t eat or drink anything for 6½ months,” he says. “As soon as I was able to eat, I jumped in the car and drove to the New Yorker for a chicken fried steak, and lost it all in the parking lot.”

Ball’s survival makes him an oddity. Once he found himself on a conference call with eight doctors from the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who wanted to interview him. “You’ve lived longer than anyone we’ve known who underwent this surgery,” they said, explaining their interest in him. “You’ve made history.”

Ball returned to work for another decade and was still working at the age of 78 when he was struck down by another health calamity in fall 2010. This time his small intestine — what was left of it — had died. He underwent more surgery. Twice his family came to the hospital to say goodbye at the behest of doctors. But the four inches of small intestine that remained after the surgery revved back to life again and he was able to go home. This time he retired for good, “but not because I wanted to,” he says.

So now he is on the sideline. He dabbles on the computer (he was doing Facebook and Twitter almost as soon as they went online), works on his book, digs in the herb garden in his back yard, reads books on his Kindle, serves on boards for the American Cancer Society and the Hale Theater and exercises three days a week at the gym. He and Joyce, his wife of 60 years, often fly south in the winter to a home they lease in Palm Desert, Calif., but there is reason to linger in Utah with their four daughters and 18 grandchildren.

“I feel good,” he says. “I try to keep busy. I’d go to work tomorrow if I could.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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