Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith Don Ballard still sits behind his desk at his downtown law firm most week days. Ballard celebrated his 85th birthday on March 15. "The Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar died, the day Brutus did his work," he said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series, Getting to Know You, that runs occasionally in the Citizen. Getting to Know You profiles Newton County's most extraordinary citizens.
COVINGTON -- For nearly two-thirds of his life, Don Ballard has been practicing law in downtown Covington.
Having just celebrated his 85th birthday, Ballard has no intention of stopping. He still goes into the office most every week day for several hours, handling probate matters like wills and estates. Sitting at home and watching TV "would be worse than death," he said.
In his heyday, Ballard was known as a bulldog in court. Citizens would cram the courtroom to hear him argue a case. Ballard doesn't know how to practice law any other way than with passion.
"I see some of these lawyers and I can tell they just go through the motions. You can tell they're doing it as a job and not enjoying it as a profession," he said.
Ballard was one of only five attorneys in town when he began practicing law in 1952 with Col. C.C. King in the Starr Building downtown. He recalls the days when court was held four times a year, and he'd argue one case right after the other. During his 60 years as a lawyer, Ballard has tried thousands of civil and criminal cases. One of his most memorable happened about a year after he started practicing, when he lost a murder case in a jury trial, a verdict that was eventually overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court due to insufficient evidence, setting his client free.
Ballard is proud of cases like that, where he's provided his clients with the best defense possible. But he's never loved criminal law.
"I don't like to lose," he admitted. "When you're trying a criminal case, there's already a problem in the beginning. You're not equal. You're at the bottom and you have to work your way up."
Ballard knows about working his way up. Born in 1927 on Rivers Hill between Oxford and Covington, Ballard was the youngest of five children. His father died when he was 5 years old, leaving the family with 12 acres and a Jersey milk cow. Ballard learned about hard work from a very early age, but, "We had a home to live in. Everybody was happy. We never knew we didn't have, period," he said.
After graduating from Covington High School, Ballard went one quarter to North Georgia College. The experience was so unpleasant, he joined the Navy to get out of college.
Ballard served during World War II in the Pacific aboard the L.S.T. 1076 as an underwater demolitionist before being promoted to the ship's office. He was en route to invade Japan when the war ended.
"The greatest thing they ever created was the GI Bill," said Ballard, who went to college under the bill at Emory University and the University of Georgia. He passed the Georgia bar in 1950.
Ballard provided legal counsel to the city of Oxford for 52 years and for more than 40 years to the city of Mansfield. He has also been the attorney for the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, the city of Covington, Newton County, Porterdale, Newborn, Walnut Grove and Jersey.
Ballard never charged for his work for Oxford, Mansfield and the Water and Sewerage Authority. It was his way of giving back to a community that has always been good to him, he said.
In adulthood, Ballard kept up the work ethic he learned as a child. While raising six children, he practiced law, served in the Georgia Legislature, started and operated Cotton States Insurance Agency, founded Covington Realty, ran a construction business and farmed.
His daughter Rebecca Mask recalled, with pride, not bitterness, that "Growing up, the phone never stopped ringing. He never didn't take a call. There was never a frown. He was always there for the people."
Ballard was elected to the Georgia General Assembly in 1956, joining a long line of ancestors in the Legislature, including his grandfather, Norman Dorminy, and great-great-grandfather, A.J. Watters. Ballard served until 1982, first in the House, then in the Senate.
Ballard often took his children out on the campaign trail. "One Fourth of July, we went to seven barbecues," Mask said.
A representative of Newton, Rockdale, Morgan, Jasper, Putnam and Barrow counties, Ballard chose not to campaign in his home county.
"I said, 'My politicking is going to be in other counties. If I've got to politick in my county, I don't deserve to be here,'" he noted.
One of the most momentous decisions of his tenure came during a meeting with Gov. Ernest Vandiver, University of Georgia personnel, judges, and several other legislators to decide whether Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes should be the first black students allowed admission to the University of Georgia.
"Some of them said, 'They'll impeach us.' I said, 'We're going to do what's right.' The final word was 'We're not going to have another Little Rock here,'" said Ballard.
While in the Legislature, Ballard spearheaded the paving of more miles of dirt roads in Newton County than he could keep track of. He also made drastic changes to the county government. It was Ballard who initiated the change from a sole chairman to a five-district Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. He also moved the county from a fee system that gave elected officials and constitutional officers a percentage of fees and fines collected to salaried pay. Though the changes weren't popular with all officials, "My decisions were made on what was best for the county or district I represented," Ballard said. "I've never been a yes man. That was something I couldn't stand."
Ballard helped create the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority with Otis Spillers, Terry Avery and Oliver Capes.
"During my time with the Authority, I served with fine members and we put water in all sections of Newton County, as well as sewer in the majority," Ballard said. "I handled many multi-million dollar bond issues. The Authority continues to be one of the best run organizations in this county."
Ballard handily beat out two opponents with 67 percent of the vote to be elected mayor of Oxford. He served from 2004 to 2006, resigning after two years because,"I decided that when you get your task done, get out," he said.
Ballard said in two years he accomplished what he set out to do: Replacing an unsightly utility and work yard with a modern day maintenance building; upgrading city equipment; upgrading personnel; and establishing a citizen's committee to advise on city planning.
Ballard is a lifetime member of North Covington United Methodist Church, where he has served as chairman of the Board of Trustees, Administrative Board, Finance Committee and as an adult Sunday School teacher. He is a member of the Grid Iron Society, the American Legion, VFW, past president of the Jaycees, and a member of Oxford Lion's Club, which awarded him the Melvin Jones Fellowship Award, the highest honor a Lion can receive. Other memberships include Covington Rotary, Elks Club, Kappa Alpha Sigma, and Oxford-Emory University Alumni, which awarded him the Emory Sesquicentennial, the highest honor an alumnus can receive.
Ballard is particularly proud of sending all six of his children to college, along with a neighbor's child. He still calls his wife of 60 years, Mary, "the love of my life."
Ballard believes he's been blessed in life, but he's also been prepared.
"I never thought I was better or smarter than anybody else. I never underestimated an opponent while I was running for office, politicking or practicing law. I always took them for the best, and that way you're ready to go," he said.In addition to work at his law office, Ballard, Stephenson and Waters, he stays busy these days with his farm in Oxford and his eight grandchildren.
Ballard said he simply wants to be thought well of by those he's known.
"I'd just love for people to think of me in that way when I'm gone. I think the average person who's known me, they'd give me a pretty good word," he said. "I've had a great life. I hope that I have benefitted others with my life."