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Professor Ben Ward Honored for Work with Students and Durham

Memorial service took place Saturday in Duke Chapel

Ben Ward, left, at a Durham Bulls game with students Neil Krishnan and Christopher Tweed-Kent. Photo by Marsha A. Green.
Ben Ward, left, at a Durham Bulls game with students Neil Krishnan and Christopher Tweed-Kent. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

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."

Ward, who was single, dove into his classes and student-life efforts with similar energy.

A classically trained pianist, Ward advised the a cappella Pitchforks group as well as other student music organizations. He attended many soccer games and was a mentor to the track team. He was frequently seen attending Durham Bulls baseball games with students, and his work with the Faculty Scholars committee promoted undergraduate research efforts.

Ward helped spearhead the faculty-in-residence program shortly after joining the Duke faculty in 1980. At that time, administrators were eager to narrow the gap between academic and residential life at Duke, and they felt that placing faculty members in undergraduate residence halls would foster such an environment. Ward's involvement in a similar program at Yale, his alma mater and prior employer, made him a desirable candidate to assist in Duke's transition.

He most recently lived in Edens Quad on West Campus.

"Ben embodies the core values and highest aspirations of Duke and is much beloved on campus and in the Durham community," said Robert Thompson, a long-time dean of Trinity College. "Ben made a difference in the lives of many undergraduates, and staff and faculty as well. Ben traversed many boundaries in academic and student life and the Duke and Durham communities, and did so with remarkable grace, dignity, genuine respect and concern for others, and with an unfailing smile, good humor and generosity of spirit."

A service of remembrance is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, in Duke Chapel. A small, private burial service will be held at a date and time that is yet to be determined.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Benjamin F. Ward Endowment for the Arts at Duke University. To contribute, go to and click the link that reads: "Add an unlisted designation." Then type in: Fund Code: 615-9006. Checks may also be mailed to Alumni & Development Records, Duke University, Box 90581, Durham, NC 27708-0581, and made payable to Duke University. Include either on the memo line, or in a note with the check, that the money is for the "Ben Ward Arts Endowment Fund."

Gifts of time in honor of Ward would be appreciated by Urban Ministries in Durham, or the non-profit of your choice. 

Written messages and pictures can be posted to