Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
In Memoriam: Algie E. Ballif
[p.33]The title of this collection, “Only When I Laugh,” comes, of course, not from Neil Simon (I had the title before he did) but from the old story about a man who had been run through with a large spear. When asked if it hurt terribly, he replied, “Only when I laugh.”
Sometimes it hurts whether we laugh or not.
Recently, Utah lost one of its foremost citizens, Algie Eggertsen Ballif. Her death made many of us hurt. So we’re not laughing right now, and if it’s all right with everybody, and even if it’s not, I’m going to talk about Algie Ballif. If you knew Algie, you’ll know why I want to talk about her. If you didn’t, I’ll try to make clear what you missed.
In an interview I read once, a Southern black woman of limited means and education but unlimited commitment spoke of the breadth of her own civil rights activities over the years: “If it was anything to do with justice, I was there.”
Her words apply to Algie Ballif. If there was anything to do with justice, she was there.
I knew her only in the last decade of her long life, as I was drawn into the affairs of the feisty and energetic Alice Louise [p.34]Reynolds Forum in Provo. After I had initially made her acquaintance, I began to notice that if there was any meeting of importance going on in Utah County, Algie would be there. I should say “they,” because Algie was ever flanked by her lieutenants, her gracious and thoughtful younger sister Thelma, and her friend of sixty-five years, the eloquent, brilliant Helen Stark.
Were the Democrats bravely trying to make their voices heard in Reagan Country? (Utah had the nation’s largest percentage vote for Reagan in 1984, and Utah County the largest percentage vote in the state.) Algie and friends were there. Was some expert desperately trying to explain to Happy Valley folk the insanity of nuclear proliferation? Algie was there. Was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor speaking on the campus of Brigham Young University? Algie would be there, you could count on it. Always in my mind’s eye I will see the three of them, elegantly dressed in their handsome suits and stylish shoes, their gray hair beautifully coiffed. There they would be on the front row of life, taking notes, asking, with the greatest of tact and diplomacy, the most outrageous questions—the questions which, however hard, had to be asked.
And if the meeting had to do with justice for women, well, in that case, Algie would not only be present, but more than likely she had been one of the moving forces behind the gathering in the first place.
The Alice Louise Reynolds Forum was but one project in a rich lifetime of important work at the national, state, and local levels, but it was the way I came to know Algie and her circle. There isn’t time here to tell the story of the organization of the forum, of the efforts and money that went into establishing the Alice Louise Reynolds Room in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU, and how the women were eventually banished from the room for their controversial activities. We all thought of the forum as our local chapter of the Grey Panthers. They were fighters, never mind that their average age hovered around eighty.
My favorite memory of them as a group spotlights the time they traveled to Salt Lake City to see the satirical musical comedy Saturday’s Voyeur that, year after year, outrages and offends one segment of the Utah population and delights another. I watched them as, with canes and assistance from younger friends, they struggled up the stairs from the lobby to their seats. The [p.35]theater staff (men in long ponytails and proud ear-rings, women with orange hair and carefully blasé expressions) looked at each other and rolled their eyes. “They’ll be asking for their money back after the first chorus,” prophesied one young turk who had not yet learned the truth about appearances. After the first chorus, the forum gang were, in fact, applauding, banging on the floor with their canes, and wiping away laughter-born tears.
They had keen humor, the wisdom of their years, plus connections, know-how, and, most wonderful to some of us in the younger contingent, they had the courage to act.
But then, Algie Ballif had been acting in noble causes all her life. She served two terms in the state legislature. She was named by Eleanor Roosevelt to the education committee of John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. She was director of the Utah Division of Public Welfare from 1967-69. She was president of the Provo Board of Education for twenty-three years. She organized and for some years headed the women’s physical education department at BYU, where she also taught English and speech.
There’s more. A lot more. The citation was long when the Utah Women’s Political Caucus presented her with the Susa Young Gates Award, for contributions in the arena of human rights and the cause of women in the state, and when they gave her a Distinguished Woman Award from the University of Utah Women’s Resource Center.
Beyond the public person, of course, there was Algie Ballif, wife and mother of four. Her daughter Grethe Peterson remembers hot meals at noon around the dining room table, busy with friends and relatives and lively conversation. Neighbors speak of her wonderful Danish cooking, her magnificent plums that made such fine jam. If, as concerns her church, she was something of a maverick, she was a maverick who nevertheless did not desert the herd, but contributed her talents generously.
All the years I knew her, Algie was legally blind and partially deaf. Dreadful nuisances, of course, but to her mind not worth wasting the time to talk about. Over eighty-five and hard of hearing-and she shamed us all, all who were younger, ablebodied, and less than totally involved. Not that she ever reproached any of us when we flagged, when we grew discouraged, when the travesty of Utah’s International Women’s Year [p.36]meeting in 1978 disheartened many. But in our minds, the message was clear: how dare we speak of lost hopes when she, who had been a suffragist fifty years earlier, was not ready to quit?
Many of us at Algie’s funeral in 1984 thought about Geraldine Ferraro and wished her selection as the Democratic candidate for vice-president had not so closely coincided with Algie’s passing. How Algie would have rejoiced to see that landmark achieved! One speaker at the services said he half expected Algie to send back for an absentee ballot.
Algie—and her equally stalwart sisters, Esther Peterson, for decades a relentless consumer advocate in Washington, D.C., and of course the irreplaceable Thelma, as well as their cousin Virginia Sorensen, renowned writer—all were part of a tradition of noblesse oblige. Like the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, the Eggertsens, and in turn, the Ballifs, were brought up to believe that if you had advantages in life—brains, talent, education, means—you owed something to the world, especially to the less fortunate members of the human race. It’s a tradition that deserves to be passed on.
At the funeral, speaking with a woman I didn’t even know except as someone else who loved Algie, I said, “She was the great role model of my life.”
“Ah,” the other woman replied. “Then you haven’t really lost her.”
Only when I laugh.