Mike Ball and his sister Linda in 1957.
Ball takes first-hand knowledge to poverty panel
House task force co-chairman talks about childhood
By M.J. Ellington
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MONTGOMERY — For some people, finding a solution to poverty is a social goal. For Rep. Mike Ball, the interest is much more personal.
It begins in 1954 with Ball's birth in a California charity hospital.
A Huntsville Republican, Ball is co-chairman of the newly created House Task Force on Poverty, which holds its first meeting Tuesday. He lived in Hartselle for years and retired as an agent with the ABI.
The task force hopes to identify specific conditions that lead to poverty or make it worse and look for practical solutions.
Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, pushed for the task force during the 2007 session of the Legislature. Her bill on the issue died in the Senate.
This fall, House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, urged Todd to begin work and appointed members of the task force.
"We don't expect to throw a lot of money toward the problem to fix it because we do not have it," Todd said. Instead, she hopes to look at poverty with creative eyes.
Enter Mike Ball, a roofing company owner, who spent his early childhood years in poverty in Stockton, Calif.
"Poverty is a complex thing; every family has a different story. There is no one-size-fits-all solution," Ball said. "My perspective is not from reading research papers and looking at surveys. I have a different take on poverty."
Ball said it is important to teach people how to make good choices and how to discourage bad choices. He speaks with the authority of someone who lived both ways as a child.
He was born in a county charity hospital in Stockton. His mother, who struggled with a mental illness now known as bipolar disease, had left her home in Hartselle months before.
Ball said his mother's episodes of emotional highs and lows were severe and never well controlled. Mental health experts say it is common for some people with the disorder, in the throes of a high, to have grandiose thoughts, overspend, disappear from home or have relationship problems.
During such a time, Ball said, his mother left his father, Leldon Ball, and disappeared with her 3-year-old daughter, Linda.
For the next 10 years, life was a roller coaster existence. There were frequent moves, many schools, times when Ball and his sister lived with his mother and times in foster homes.
"I had no continuous supervision," Ball recalled. Then the children's mother died and they believed they were orphans.
At age 8, Ball said, "I was a little street criminal. I shoplifted, I stole things." His actions caught the attention of police, who arrested him for vandalism, the only arrest he ever had.
"I've often wondered why I have been relatively successful, why I did not end up in prison. I certainly was on my way there," he said.
Ball was sent to Mary Graham Hall, the county children's shelter in Stockton. A social worker there discovered the children's father still lived in Hartselle, something that others who worked with the family did not find out earlier.
Leldon Ball brought his children home to Alabama.
"Daddy had a little street urchin without a lot of moral training," Ball said. "Those first few years, my daddy changed who I was."
In Hartselle, Ball said they had stability, love and a modest lifestyle that underscored the value of hard work and ethical behavior.
Though Leldon Ball only went through the sixth grade and did not have much money, his son said he knew education was important and saw that his children went to school.
Ball called his father "a practical Christian who instilled values by example," and took his children to church.
There was also work "like a man at 10,11,12" with his father at the family sawmill in Hartselle.
Just shy of his 15th birthday and a week before school was to start, Mike Ball was working as a log turner at the sawmill with his father in August 1969. Leldon Ball was operating the saw as his son turned the log.
A board slipped and hit the saw. Leldon Ball lunged to push his son away from the wayward board. The board hit Leldon Ball in the head and killed him.
Ball lived for a time with his stepmother, his half-sister and his half-brother. His older sister married after high school.
He spent some time with other relatives and worked as a roofer with Haskel "Hack" Ward, whom Ball calls the second most influential man in his life. Ward offered to let Ball live in an apartment above his garage. "I knew he needed a place to stay," Ward said.
The two played music together, with Ball playing the old Gibson guitar that his father left him and other instruments. It is something they still do today.
A stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, college, marriage, parenthood, divorce and remarriage followed.
Ball said it is important not to assume you know about someone by preconceived notions, whether the person is wealthy or poor.
"A lot of times, people tend to look down their noses at country people, poor people," Ball said. "I don't do that."
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