Johnny Ball

  • Johnny-Ball-Portrait

    A good friend from Fish Camp passed away a year ago this April at the ripe old age of 99. The anniversary of his death reminded me that I took a portrait of him the year before and also recorded a few of his stories. It’s time I posted my portrait of this amazing old timer who commercial fished 82 consecutive seasons, only ever missing one.

    We never called him John or Johnny but always Johnny Ball––sometime Mister Johnny Ball. We didn’t use this moniker out of respect, although we had a great deal of it for him, but because it somehow fit and made sense. It rolled off the tongue I suppose. Or maybe the shortness of his last name made us feel like it should be attached to something and not left out there all on its own. So, it was a bit of a shock when I learned, after his death, that his legal name had little semblance to anything we called him on the beach. His obituary started, “Albert William Ball was born November 6, 1914…” To me he was and always will be Johnny Ball.

    Johnny Ball was born November 6, 1914 in Washington State and moved to Alaska following two of his brothers in 1934 (although his obituary says 1931…) when he was in his mid-teens. He told me life wasn’t very good in Washington and that they were living on welfare more than making a living on their own. Alaska promised a subsistence lifestyle at least. They arrive that first year May 27th and commercial fishing started June 25 and closed July 25. He trapped during the winter and fished during the summer. He was famous for fishing 82 seasons in a row, only missing one. He fished around Bristol Bay including Ekuk, where four generations of family members still fish, and Pilot Point, where I met him and where is wife, Janice, still lives and works at the nicest building in town, the US Post Office. Even with the rigors of fishing every year, Johnny Ball and his brother-in-law, Myron Moran, started Western Alaska Airlines in 1953 out of Dillingham.

    I will always hold fast to my memories of Johnny Ball motoring ever so slowly down the beach from his house in the village to visit with us fisherman. Since rhubarb doesn’t grow in the salty soil near our cabins he’d often bring us some from his gangbuster patch. While everyone else raced around on their wheelers, Johnny Ball would creep along, never in a hurry to get anywhere and always looking very contented. When he would pull up to visit, he’d drive his wheeler right up the bank and across and over anything to avoid doing any walking. He was in his late 90s by that time so we never minded. He would sit stoically atop his wheeler and apprise us of what had happened over the winter when us fisherman had retreated to more hospitable climes and Johnny Ball had stuck it out for another brutal winter. He’d ask after my wife and daughter, say hello to my father, then be on his way to chat with other fishermen and offer a few sticks of rhubarb.

    I’ll miss him. With any luck, I’ll be just just as tough and friendly when I’m 90.


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Traveler Terpening

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