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Respecting teens, living the moment: MPH and Baxter Ball

David Katz, like so many teens, is adept at “multi-tasking.” He was focused Sunday on handing out red and white tassels to fellow members of his graduating class at Manlius Pebble Hill School in DeWitt. Yet Katz, president of the National Honor Society at MPH, was also trying to come up with a story that could do justice to the life of Baxter Ball.

The answer occurred to Katz as he walked toward a ceremony in which he and Nishobo McGinty would receive the school’s top awards for leadership and service. “Ultimate four square!” Katz exclaimed. He hurried toward a sidewalk where several classmates, in their caps and gowns, were slapping around a tennis ball in a trickier version of the game played by children in the street.

Katz and Jordan Gentile, another senior, explained the history: Ultimate four square evolved at MPH, a private school on Jamesville Road, as an informal way for students to blow off steam. The teens built in their own rules and innovations, and the game soon dominated a walkway near the school. This did not sit well with all faculty members, Katz said, especially when the ball careened off windows.

Faced with a potential four square ban, the students approached Ball, the school’s longtime headmaster. “We could always go to Baxter for a correct yet liberal ruling,” said Katz, with a hint of a smile, recalling how the headmaster turned the question into a matter of thought and debate.

If the “sport” continued, Ball asked, would the players be courteous? Would they be conscious of making way for others walking past? Most important, would the founders avoid the classic high school “inner circle,” in which some teens get to play and others only wish they could?

In the end, reassured, Ball gave four square his approval. Katz said the headmaster, for sheer enjoyment, would often park nearby and watch. To Katz, it spoke to Ball’s deep understanding of his students, how he would never diminish or ridicule issues of teen importance — while always insisting that compromise demands awareness of the rights and needs of others.

“Ask any of the kids here,” Katz said, “and they’ll tell you about the effect he had on their lives.”

Ball, 64, died in February of a sudden illness. Don Ridall, a close friend and the school’s athletic director, spoke of how Ball “could always find little things to make each kid feel important.” He was an “iconic headmaster,” said Tracy Frank, interim head of the school. Susan Gullo, the MPH communications director, said enrollment nearly tripled during Ball’s 21 years in the position.

“He drove the school toward diversity — ethnic, cultural, economic — and toward diversity of thought,” she said. “He put the right people in place, and he built a school that was bigger than himself.”

Sunday, all focus was on the class of 2011. Any mention of Ball celebrated his achievements, rather than mourning his death. Adam Fratto, who left MPH to become a television and film producer, delivered the commencement address. Ball’s son Jonathan — who earned an MPH diploma in 1992 — was on stage to shake the hand of every graduate. His dad would have found joy in the day, Jonathan said, since Ball’s career was built around “the life of the mind.”

Alexandra Gyder Reece, who leaves MPH to attend Rider University, said Ball reached out to that college on her behalf. “I know this sounds like a cliché, but he was one of my best friends,” Reece said. She would often stop by his office to talk, and she remembers being startled to find an old photo of her girls lacrosse team on the wall.

The team, new to the school, had struggled to win its first game. When it finally happened, Reece’s grandfather — Bobby Jack Reece — photographed the moment, and that is the picture Ball kept on his wall. At MPH, a school known for tremendous academic success, it hardly seemed like an event for a headmaster to enshrine.

Ball saw it differently. Winning that game, he told Reece, was a shining achievement. When it happened, it meant as much to the teens on the field as any championship or scholastic honor. To Ball, the photo captured exactly what educators ought to inspire, the whole idea that passion and creativity can bring celestial results at any time.

Four months ago, Reece came to school and learned Ball was gone. Last week, her grandfather died.

“This is for them,” she said of her diploma — and of what comes next.