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Conserving nature, preserving history

Ball family gift honours famed naturalist W.E. Saunders

by Krista Habermehl, MA'05 | November 24, 2014

"We should take full advantage of the rare things in nature, for we are never sure that another chance will arrive." - W.E. Saunders (1861-1943)

A hawk circling the skies. A beetle scuttling across a dirt path. Rows of irises bending gracefully in the wind.

These images of the natural world inspired and motivated W.E. Saunders, LLD’36, a successful businessman, prominent Canadian ornithologist as well as entomologist, horticulturalist and – above all – naturalist.

Born in London, Ont., in 1861, W.E. Saunders was the son of William Saunders, one of the foremost Canadian authorities on agriculture and horticulture and founder of the Experimental Farms in Ottawa in the late 1800s. Like his father, W.E. Saunders was a pharmacologist by trade, but spent much of his time alone, out-of-doors, in the wetlands, woodlands and fields of southwestern Ontario.

“When I go out into the woods,” he often said, “I forget everything else … I don’t know what it is to be lonely in the country where there is nobody.”

W.E. Saunders was a passionate advocate for nature and conservancy and was thrilled to share his knowledge with others. During his lifetime, he wrote more than 700 newspaper columns, as well as 300 articles, on the subject. He was also a member of several prominent ornithological and naturalist clubs and societies in Canada and the United States.

A gift from Mrs. Kay Ball, BA'44 (bottom left), and Mr. George Ball (bottom right), with their sons Mr. Stephen Ball (top left) and Prof. Eric Ball (top right), will support Western Science students' research on conservation and biodiversity.

In honour of W.E. Saunders’ memory and achievements in the field of conservation, his granddaughter, the late Kathleen (Kay) Ball, BA’44, and her family generously donated $100,000 to Western University to establish an endowed scholarship fund. Mrs. Ball passed away in the summer of 2014.

The W.E. Saunders Memorial Graduate Scholarship in Biological Conservation & Biodiversity will provide $15,000 each year to a master’s or doctoral student in the Faculty of Science who holds an Ontario Graduate Scholarship and is conducting research in the fields of biological conservation or biodiversity.

“Achieving sustainability of environmental systems in our interconnected world is undoubtedly one of the century’s greatest challenges and among the research critical priorities at Western Science,” says Charmaine Dean, dean of the Faculty of Science at Western University. “This scholarship will enhance the educational experience of our graduate students, allowing them opportunities they would not otherwise have to follow their research passion and develop the critical knowledge and skills required to address this global issue.”

The Ball family gift will support bright and enthusiastic students who will carry on W.E. Saunders’ legacy of education and conservation.

“We’re hoping these students will go on to do great things,” says Stephen Ball, son of Mrs. Kay Ball. “A university education represents a significant financial commitment and this is an opportunity for us to support people who have a shared interest with our family.”

Like W.E. Saunders, Mrs. Ball had a keen interest in birds. As a child, she often tagged along on his numerous nature walks and bird-watching excursions and a close relationship developed through this shared interest.

W.E. Saunders was indisputably a father figure in Mrs. Ball’s life (her own father passed away unexpectedly when she was only two years old) and she fondly referred to him as “Pop.” Following in Saunders’ footsteps, Mrs. Ball pursued postsecondary education in biology at Western and, in 1949, she graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., with a PhD in ornithology.

According to Mr. Stephen Ball, his mother endeavoured to pass her love of nature onto both of her sons, spending many Sundays with them at Beaverhill Lake near Edmonton, Alta., in search of birds. Her interest was infectious and she influenced many friends and family members to become avid birders.

Mrs. Kay Ball, BA'44, who passed away in the summer of 2014, was rarely seen without her field binoculars.

“When it came to birds, my mother loved pretty much everything about them,” says Mr. Ball. “Even in the last few years of her life we would drive her around the countryside to look for birds. She would see a tiny speck in the sky and say ‘Oh, that’s a … ’ and name a specific kind of hawk. All I would see was a black speck in the sky but she could tell by the wing motion, the tips of the feathers and the tail, what it was.”

Thanks to the Ball family’s inspiration, this generous gift will preserve W.E. Saunders’ legacy and provide the motivation for future generations of students to follow in the famed naturalist’s footsteps.


This article appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Impact Western
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