Benjamin Ward, a philosophy professor who touched the lives of many Duke students and Durham residents during his more than three decades at Duke, died Saturday after a long struggle with colon cancer. He was 65.
A native of Baltimore who grew up in Montgomery, Ala., and Berkeley, Calif., Ward was a musical prodigy who played the organ at the 1968 memorial service for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He received his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College and his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1972. Ward joined the Duke faculty in 1980. He taught courses in Modern Standard Arabic, comparative literature, German Studies and philosophy. He was also a long-time chair of the Faculty Scholars Committee and served as associate dean for faculty programs, helping to promote efforts to improve faculty-student interaction. "Few at this institution devoted themselves to the lives of our students the way that Ben did," said Joe Gonzalez, dean of residence life at Duke. "He had a passion for so many things — music, languages, sports, philosophy — and loved sharing his passions with others in a mutual search for deeper meaning and understanding. "Ben was committed to helping those less fortunate than himself and volunteered countless hours of service in the community and served as a mentor for generations of youth. Ben was an inspiration to many on how life can and should be lived."
Even after being diagnosed with colon cancer three years ago, Ward's energy seemed boundless. For more than two decades, he volunteered two hours a day, five days a week at Urban Ministries to help feed local residents. He received Duke's Humanitarian Service Award in 1997, and a decade later he received the Duke Employee Community Service Award, sponsored by Duke's Office of Community Affairs. When he received the Community Service Award, Ward recalled that he got involved with Urban Ministries because he regularly passed the downtown shelter on his bicycle and wondered why the parking lot there was filled with African-American men.
After talking with the men, he was determined to take action. "I wanted the challenge," Ward said about the volunteer work. "I wanted to do something different from the norm. I learn a lot; a lot about the people, the city and myself. It's a measure of my own growth; it expands a sense of who I am."