Former Iowa Mr. Leather, computer programmer and gay Chicagoan Ken Meverick Ballard died Jan. 11 in his Lake View home at the age of 43. The cause of death is currently unknown.
Ballard was born July 9, 1978, in Des Moines, Iowa where he spent his entire childhood. At 8, Ballard started teaching himself to code. He graduated from North High School in Des Moines and started his career shortly thereafter.
In a quote from a memoir written by Ballard about his life he said, "I got my first computer when I was eight years old. I started writing code on it and learned what would later be my craft at an early age. I would buy magazines with code in the back of them. I was such a slow typist with my tiny fingers, Mom would type the program in and I would change and expand it."
Ballard worked in the programming field for 20 years, most recently at Slalom as a Solutions Principal. He also worked at Nerdery for five years as a principal software engineer and computer serviceman. At each of his jobs, Ballard moved up the promotion ladder into leadership roles and, according to his family, was loved by his colleagues.
Additionally, Ballard taught free programming skills to children and adolescents across Chicago through his involvement at the non-profit CoderDojo (now We All Code), where he also served as a principal board member. He also volunteered at the Lake View Food Pantry and, with other team members, created a Chicago COVID tracking app.
Ballard was known to his family and friends as a "walking Google."
Among Ballard's other interests were playing the trombone and piano. His trombone skills led to an article in the Drake University newspaper, where he took lessons from one of the university professors.
Shortly after being named Iowa Mr. Leather in 2005, Ballard moved to Chicago, where he spent most of the rest of his life.
A practicing Zen Buddhist, Ballard also went on a sabbatical at the Green Gulch Farm of the Zen Buddhist Center in the San Francisco area for a time where he worked in the farm's kitchen and garden due to his love of cooking. He also took culinary arts classes and during the COVID-19 pandemic hosted a family Zoom that he called "Cooking with Ken" where the family prepared and ate meals together.
Ballard was an avid bikereven in inclement weather that would result in injuriesand was a frequent participant in Chicago's World Naked Bike Ride. He also organized group bike rides with friends and co-workers.
Additionally, Ballard loved attending big concerts and performances. He also played his djembe (a type of drum) at the Chicago Full Moon Jam among other recreational endeavors.
He was an avid and spontaneous traveler. Journeys included a recent road trip across the country as well as several months spent in India and Nepal. He loved meeting new people and spending time with family and friends.
Ballard is survived by his mother, Rose Eaves; father, Michael Ballard; sister, Jennifer (Brendan) Carroll; nephews Brian and Devin; numerous aunts, uncles and cousins; countless chosen family members and friends; and his cat, Karen.
He was preceded in death by his grandparents, Stan and Letha Ballard and Leon and Mary Ohnemus Eaves.
Ballard's mother said, "Ken loved to spend time with his paternal grandma, Letha Ballard. She taught him how to knit, crochet, played board games with him and also frequently cooked and baked with him. His love for cooking and baking came from their experiences together, and he loved sharing his talent with others as an adult. He would go to his grandma to work on the Saturdays that she worked at a law firm in downtown Des Moines. She was the only surviving grandparent as he was growing up and they had a very close relationship.
"Ken was a very good baby, did not cry much and was a pure joy. He always had a smile on his face and was very curious and inquisitive. He loved singing, dancing and laughing as a young boy. As he got older, I had to buy a set of encyclopedias that will date him in order to keep up with his inquisitive mind. He was in the Talented and Gifted program from the 6th grade on. Ken had a gentle and quiet spirit, but certainly could be the life of the party and brought much joy and happiness to all around him, especially his family."
"Rose and I blocked each other on Facebook without knowing it," said his aunt Leah Eaves. "I remember Ken telling us not to try and fix our own computers and to wait for him to do it."
"Ken was well-loved by many extended family and lifelong friends," said his aunt Ann Huffman. "He was a friend to everyone he met. His enthusiasm and love impacted all whose life he touched. Ken leaves a hold in our hearts as big as his laugh and as wide as his smile. He was a beacon of light, laughter and compassion for his family, friends and all he met. Ken's light will be missed, but his flame will ever light the torch that glows within everyone whose life he touched."
"His laughter always brought joy. He loved hard and always made sure you knew it," said his cousin Amy Eaves. "He was brilliant and bold. May he glitter on in our hearts."
"Ken was the hub of the Eaves cousins," said Sara Huffman, one of his cousins. "We all grew up together and he made sure we all stayed close and connected over the years. He was brave and always lived his life truthfully, which paved the way for me and others to come out and be who we are, too. There are genuinely no words to express what he meant to me."
"Ken was a really great uncle to our kids," said another cousin, Mike Street. "He always went above and beyond to see the joy in their eyes."
"Ken always showed up as a friend," said longtime friend John Michael Colgin. "I called him 'Fun Monster.' Thankfully, he was so funny that it is hard to think about him without laughing. He would often say engineers need artists and artists need engineers in reference to our friendship. Little lessons like avoiding insularity will always be with me in how I live and relate to my community. I will miss introducing him to those I care about."
"I met him in eighth grade at the half-day magnet school for smart kids in Des Moines," said another friend, Melissa Dally. "He was so much fun and hilarious even back then. We were both obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation. He became my best friend. We would have these intense long phone calls and sent each other long handwritten letters. I could not ask for a better friend. I am glad we reconnected in recent years."
"I moved to Chicago 13 years ago and met Ken at a community event," said yet longtime friend, Jake Bridgewater. "He invited me over to his place and I did not leave for three days. For the first month of knowing me, he thought I was in the closet looking for guidance when really I just wanted a friend. He is like my girlfriend. Only later did I find out he called me 'Straight Jake'."
"Ken was a self-made man and never forgot that," said former Nerdery work colleague and friend Gregg Walrod. "Anytime he could, he was volunteering in the community. Whether it be serving food or teaching the next generation of coders. Ken did everything he could to give back to others. The only thing larger than Ken's laugh was his heart. He always made you feel like you were the most important person in the world when you were with him. Anytime anyone moved to the city or visited he made sure they felt welcomed."
"He was constantly thinking of others, putting people first and leading with empathy," said Slalom work colleague Anne Halliday. "Someone described him recently as a 'fierce friend' which is just so fitting. He celebrated authenticity so freely in a way that we could all learn from. His laugh was so distinct, genuine and contagious. He was super smart, wonderful at his job, always learning more and excited about making an impact. He and Karen the Kitty simply made work fun for everyone around him. He had such a huge personality so the hole left behind seems all the quieter."
Ballard's Chicago friends held a "Sunday Funday" to honor his life at one of his favorite Chicago bars, Carol's Pub, in Uptown on Jan. 16.
A GoFundMe account has been launched, with the proceeds going to a mental health charity of the family's choosing; see www.gofundme.com/f/remembering-ken .