Uncommon Strength, Enduring Love: Ruth Searcy Ballard ’52
On September 20, The Ballard Center, which houses the college’s new Professional Development Program, was officially opened and dedicated in memory of Ruth Ballard by her husband, donor Ret. Air Force Lt. Col. Arthur “Ted” Ballard ’51.
This is the story of the woman who inspired Ballard’s gift to SMC.
At 84 years old, Ted Ballard easily recalls the first time he saw the woman who would become his wife.
“I thought she was really good-looking,” he remembers.
Ted first met the auburn-haired, brown-eyed Ruth Searcy at Fowler Brothers Cleaners in 1950, where the two Spartanburg Junior College (now SMC) students had jobs as part of a co-op arrangement in which they worked for two weeks and went to school for two weeks.
Neither student had a car, so their boss, John Fowler, picked them up each day, driving first to campus to get Ruth and then to Ballard’s nearby home.
Along the way, love blossomed.
“I was dating someone else pretty seriously at the time, but eventually it became Ruth and me,” Ted says.
Ted was drawn by her looks, but also by her strength and confidence, he says.
For Ruth, both of the qualities Ted admired in her would be tested during the difficult years ahead for the young couple.
A Country at War
After graduating from SJC in 1951, Ballard was at Clemson University when the Korean War and a lifelong interest in flying led him to the Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Program. Cadets couldn’t be married, so Ruth finished her education and took a job in Spartanburg while Ballard trained as a jet pilot. In 1955, two days after he received his Air Force commission, the couple wed.
The next decade was a busy and exciting time for the newlyweds. Ballard’s military career took them to glamorous postings in Las Vegas, Nevada; Victorville, California; Tripoli, Libya; and Okinawa, Japan. Ruth embraced military life, volunteering in hospitals as a “Grey Lady” and working in secretarial positions for military top brass.
“She loved the service,” Ballard says with pride. “She became very knowledgeable about every part of it.”
When their son Kevin was born in 1959, like many women of the time, Ruth turned her considerable intelligence and focus to raising him. Ballard’s sister, Evelyn (a 1962 SJC graduate), remembers traveling from Spartanburg to California to help Ruth while her brother was on temporary assignment in Spain.
“She was my role model,” Evelyn says. “Growing up in a small mill house with six brothers and a younger sister, I didn’t learn much about housekeeping. In the short time I was with her, Ruth taught me how to keep a house, raise a child and instilled in me a love of learning – by reading. She was a smart, smart woman. She and Ted encouraged and supported my educational goals and attainment of my associate degree at Spartanburg Junior College and my B.A. degree from Furman University.”
While the couple built their life together, the United States became more involved in the growing unrest in Vietnam. Skirmishes between the communist North and democratic South, split into two separate countries in 1954, exploded into heavy fighting involving American troops in 1965. Ballard, now a captain assigned to the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flew dozens of combat missions into North Vietnam, always returning safely to Korat Air Base in Thailand. Ruth and Kevin waited at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa.
On September 26, 1966, during his 68th mission, a bombing run north of Hanoi, Ballard’s F-105 jet was hit by enemy fire. He ejected from the fiery warplane and lost consciousness as his parachute drifted to the ground. He woke up with a badly broken left leg, a sprained right leg and a Vietnamese soldier’s rifle pointed at his head.
Back in Okinawa, Ruth was now living every military spouse’s worst nightmare: no one knew if her husband was alive or dead. She and Kevin (now six) returned to her family’s farm in Lake Lure, North Carolina, where she set herself resolutely to the task of providing a good life for her son while waiting to learn her husband’s fate.
It would be three long years before word would come.
“We kept in touch with Ruth all those years, of course,” Evelyn remembers. “She was the rock for our mother and father because they were very distraught. But Ruth was always solid. She always believed and repeatedly said ‘He’s alive’ before we even got notice officially that he was.”
In 1969, Ruth finally learned that her husband was indeed alive and being held, along with hundreds of other American servicemen, in North Vietnamese POW camps.
Another year passed before the first letter arrived from him. Three more would pass before his release.
Ballard’s brother, Jim, also an SMC student during the 1960s and a young husband himself when Ted’s plane was shot down, recalls Ruth as the perfect military spouse. “I have never met another individual who exhibited more strength, more courage and more integrity than she did,” he recalls. “She took their son, went back to the ‘mountains’ as I called it, and worked. She was everything we all hoped we could be if put into that situation.”
During the remaining years of her husband’s captivity, Ruth sent dozens of care packages with warm clothes, food and photos. Precious little made it into Ballard’s hands, and some of it was used by guards in failed attempts to bribe him into betraying secrets. When kinder guards let packages through, Ballard says they were a lifeline that helped him endure the deprivation, loneliness and torture he experienced in the camps.
Ruth found another way to help by participating in the “Wives of Vietnam POWs” movement organized by Sybil Stockdale, the wife of a Navy pilot shot down in 1965 and held captive in North Vietnam for seven years. Her work and the work of other wives focused international attention on the plight of American prisoners who were being starved and tortured in violation of the Geneva Convention.
“Ruth would go to malls and public places to gather signatures on petitions to get the attention of lawmakers,” Evelyn says. “Ruth inspired me to work with the local Wives of Vietnam POWs in Atlanta, where I was teaching in a junior high school, to canvass the local malls for signatures on petitions to send to Congress.”
“I have never met another individual who exhibited more strength, more courage and more integrity than she did.” – Jim Ballard ’66
The wives’ efforts and the resulting media coverage led to better treatment for POWs.
In 1973, Ballard, along with 600 other U.S. prisoners, was finally released. “I’ll never forget stopping in the Philippine Islands, and we all got to call home. As soon as Ruth answered the phone, I knew that everything was all right,” he says.
Back in the states, Ballard was assigned to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and the family began rebuilding their lives. After a medical exam revealed a head injury suffered during torture, he put his energy into finishing college – and received his bachelor’s and master’s degree from Troy State University in Alabama and served on the War College’s faculty until his retirement from the Air Force in 1977.
An opportunity to teach Junior ROTC at Gaffney High brought the family back to South Carolina, and Lt. Col Ballard had his second career, retiring in 1997. After returning to Ted’s hometown, Ruth also pursued her educational goals by completing and receiving her bachelor’s degree in business from USC-Upstate.
Meanwhile, Kevin grew into a brilliant young man, turning a childhood love of science–encouraged by his mother during their years in Lake Lure–into a bachelor’s degree from Wofford, then a master’s and a doctorate in pharmacology from the South Carolina Medical College.
A Legacy of Love
But Ruth’s strength was to be cruelly tested again. In 2009, Kevin died suddenly of a heart attack at age 49. Now living every parent’s worst nightmare, Ruth, though brokenhearted, endured their son’s tragic loss with characteristic dignity and resolve, says Ballard.
In 2015, when Ruth’s own health began to fail, she and Ballard discussed the legacy she wanted to leave behind. “ was where our lives together started,” Ballard says. “We talked about doing something for the school. I think it’s just an ideal place for young students who are not really sure what they want to do, where they can get a couple years of good general knowledge.”
Ruth Searcy Ballard died on December 16, 2015. In a message posted on the website pownetwork.org the day after her death, Ballard wrote, “60 years of marriage. My heart is just broken.”
In April 2016, Ballard established a lasting memorial to Ruth with a gift to endow a scholarship and provide a home for the college’s new Professional Development Center.
Fittingly, the new Ballard Center, officially opened and dedicated on September 20, 2016, is in a renovated wing of Judd Hall, where Ruth lived during her student days.
“She would love it,” Ballard says. “I used to visit her there in the lobby. Knowing that students are learning there, starting their lives there like us…I know it would make her happy.”