Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 12, 2005
Byline: Rusty Pray
'One of the great citizens' of Phila.
Ernesta Drinker Ballard, 85, who had faith in feminism long before most people believed it existed, who defied conventions and shattered glass ceilings, and under whose direction the Philadelphia Flower Show became a world-class event, died yesterday at Cathedral Village of complications following a stroke.
Before moving into Cathedral Village, a retirement community in Roxborough, in 1998, she had lived with her husband, Frederic, and 500 houseplants in Chestnut Hill.
"She was one of the great citizens our city has had in recent history," said Todd W. Bernstein, president of the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, an organization Mrs. Ballard helped found. "Her interests were never passing. They were always a passion."
"Most of the things we do at the society and the success we've had over the last 25 years are due to her," said Jane Pepper, who was hired by Mrs. Ballard in the 1970s and in 1981 succeeded her as president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. "She left a huge legacy here."
As a Fairmount Park commissioner, Mrs. Ballard led numerous beautification or restoration projects, at such sites as the Swann Fountain at Logan Square and the Fairmount Water Works.
She launched Philadelphia Green, a program that turns vacant urban scrub land into gardens of vegetables and flowers.
Mayor Street issued a statement that listed her many accomplishments and lauded Mrs. Ballard's life as being "spent in the pursuit of the greater good."
"Thanks to her stalwart efforts and graceful elegance," his statement concluded, "Philadelphia is a better place now and for generations to come."
Mrs. Ballard fought for pay equity and sexual equality. She was a founding member of the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
She marched on Washington, lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment, and raised money for female candidates. She traveled to Nairobi to support women in emerging nations.
She fought the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over teaching Girl Scouts about birth control and alternative lifestyles.
Skateboarding at JFK Plaza was a fight not closely associated with Mrs. Ballard but one that was close to her heart. A few years back, she sided with skateboarders who fought a city ban of their sport at the plaza, also known as LOVE Park.
"She thought they were an asset," said daughter Alice. "She loved working on that."
Few knew that Mrs. Ballard suffered for years from clinical depression – until she started talking openly of her battle with the affliction in 2000. She hoped her speaking out would spur others, particularly elderly people, to seek diagnosis and treatment.
Her long journey began in 1954. At the time, she was headed nowhere – the youngest of her four children was in nursery school, and she had no profession and no prospects. She hadn't even gone to college.
"She used to say to me, 'I have gone directly from being somebody's daughter to somebody's wife to somebody's mother. I want to be somebody,' " her late husband recalled in 1976, when his wife was about to receive the Gimbel Award.
That said, she took up the study of plants at the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, now Temple University-Ambler Campus, because it was near her home. From that modest beginning, she became one of the region's leading feminists, horticulturists and community activists.
A tiny, soft-spoken woman with glasses and a shy smile, she wore her gray hair straight, drawn back in a perfectly plain, no-nonsense way. Her look was composed and full of confidence, frankness and intelligence.
She was a socialite who sometimes shook the old guard with her ideas.
"All my life I've been trying to run a balance," she said in a 1998 Inquirer interview. "I'm trying to promote women at the same time that I'm trying to be a member of society. I don't want to be a radical way out there. I want to raise people's consciousness in the greater community. And I can't do that if I'm a radical; they're not going to listen to me."
Mrs. Ballard came from a line of achievers. There are some notable women in her family, which arrived in Philadelphia before William Penn.
Her great-aunt Cecilia Beaux was a prominent portrait and landscape painter; her aunt Catherine Drinker Bowen was a biographer; her mother, Sophie Hutchinson Drinker, was a serious thinker who wrote about women in music and other subjects.
The fourth of five children, Mrs. Ballard as a girl enjoyed the comforts of Main Line debutante life in Merion: old money, maids and butlers, tennis, dating and parties. She also had dreams of being a prominent lawyer, like her father, Harry.
Her father, however, laughed at the notion.
"He just never took it seriously," she said. He further undermined her self-esteem by criticizing her appearance.
And so, her academic career – and any professional career she might have desired – ended when she graduated from St. Timothy's finishing school in Catonsville, Md., married lawyer Frederic L. Ballard Jr. in 1939, and settled down to raise a family.
But after graduating from horticultural school in 1954, she established Valley Gardens, a business that both fostered and took advantage of what was then a growing interest – greening the home. She also wrote two popular books on plants, Garden in Your House and The Art of Training Plants.
In her own home, on Crefeld Street, she kept 500 plants that required daily attention. Outside were a thousand more, some of them in a Bonsai garden that was for a time a highlight of local garden club tours.
In 1964, as Mrs. Ballard sought a "wider outlet" for her administrative skills, she closed her thriving horticultural business to head the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and supervise its annual extravaganza, the Philadelphia Flower Show.
She took charge of what was once described as "a somewhat musty association of flora freaks," with four employees and a budget of $70,000. Today, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has more than 100 staffers and is a national leader in urban greening.
"She sort of got on the road to her accomplishments when she became executive director of the horticultural society," her daughter said. "Before that, she was just our mom."
Mrs. Ballard also was heavily involved in feminist and civic causes.
She was a founder of the local NOW chapter in 1967. She was appointed to the Pennsylvania Commission on Women, helped create the Women's Bicentennial Center, was named to head the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, and was named vice president of the Pennsylvania Women's Political Caucus.
She was deeply involved in Fairmount Park after being appointed to the Park Commission in 1981. She chaired the committee that drew a master plan for the park's future, and she led a drive to raise $2.3 million to renovate Swann Fountain.
Throughout her life, her circle of activity kept spreading. In 1984, she was elected to the board of managers of the Philadelphia Foundation; she was named chairwoman in 1991. From 1989 to 1991, she was the chairwoman of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Ballard is survived by a son, Frederic L. "Rick" Ballard Jr.; daughters Sophie B. Bilezikian and Ernesta B. Barnes; a sister; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2001.
Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 2 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave. Burial will be private.