NC State honors longtime fan John Ward with tribute at Omaha

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 19, 2013 

— John Ward always dreamed of following his beloved N.C. State Wolfpack to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series. It took 10 years after his death for that dream to come true.

Elliott Avent, the N.C. State baseball coach, arrived here last week carrying his own hopes and dreams, and those of his players. He also brought some of Ward’s ashes, encased in glass.

“I’ll take it to the dugout when we play,” Avent said. “He would have wanted to be here, so he’s going to be.”

For the longest time, Ward knew where he wanted his ashes to go after he died. He asked his wife to take some to the mountains and sprinkle them on the soil of their church retreat outside of Asheville.

Others were to be taken to Doak Field, home of the N.C. State baseball team, where Ward had spent hundreds of afternoons and nights blowing his familiar duck call, giving the umpires grief and cheering on the Wolfpack, game after game, season after season, for more than 50 years until he died in 2003.

What would Ward, the most fanatic of all Wolfpack baseball fans, have to say now that N.C. State is in Omaha? What would following the Wolfpack to the College World Series have meant to him?

“That’s almost indescribable,” his widow, Kate Ward, said earlier this week. “Because he waited so many years for this. And I think that’s the reason why everybody still talks about him.

“He was always there for games whether anybody else was or not.”

Part of the program

Kate Ward will be 90 in January. N.C. State wanted to put her on the plane to Omaha with the Wolfpack, but she doesn’t get around too well these days. So she has watched the College World Series from home in Raleigh.

She went out to the team sendoff last week before the Wolfpack boarded a bus to the airport. She called over Avent, the N.C. State coach, as if he were a son. They hugged, and she said she was proud of him.

“My players used to go rake (their) leaves, and she’d feed them in the old days when that was legal, (when) you could do that,” Avent said. “They adopted our team every year. They have been with us through thick and thin, pulling for us, crying when we lost, rejoicing when we won.

“Mr. Ward couldn’t be with us, and this was his dream.”

The story of how Kate Ward met her husband is like something from a black and white movie. She was a part of a chaperoned group of dancers who went to Fort Jackson, in Columbia, S.C., “to be with the soldiers,” she said. And he was back from the war, where he’d served in Europe. It was 1944.

“He was a tall, good-looking guy, and a great dancer,” she said. “He danced his way through life.”

John Ward was a passionate baseball fan already. He grew up in Williamston, east of Rocky Mount, and he’d take the train to Raleigh to watch N.C. State play, Kate Ward said. She was from Charleston, S.C., and didn’t know much about the game, but that was all right. John taught her.

After the war, John went back to school and earned his engineering degree from N.C. State. He and his wife settled down and made a life. They became fixtures at N.C. State baseball games in the 1950s, with John always down close to the field in a seat where he could be heard. By players, and coaches. By umpires.

John was tough on umpires but on nobody else, really. When he died, the funeral was more celebration than mourning.

“I don’t think he had any enemies in the world, except Carolina people, maybe, and probably a few umpires with rabbit years,” said Bob Kennel, who played baseball at N.C. State in 1950s.

The Wards were already friends with Kennel’s parents, and Kennel became close to the Wards over the years, too. So did generations of other Wolfpack baseball players.

When Kennel played, John hadn’t started bringing the duck call to games. No one is quite sure when that tradition started, or how, but eventually John brought the duck call to every game. He’d blow it when the Wolfpack had runners on base – ducks on the pond, the old baseball saying goes – and the noise became such a presence that they still play a duck call over the public address system at N.C. State games.

Every now and then, at a road game, or maybe an NCAA tournament game, someone tried to silence the quacking.

“And so he would blow it just in spite,” Kate said. “And once in a while, he got reprimanded.”

If it wasn’t the duck call, it was the sayings. John was famous for his sayings.

He had one he shouted every time a Wolfpack pitcher struck out a batter. Mike Prochaska, a pitcher who played on the last N.C. State team Ward watched, can still hear it when he thinks back to those days.

“If we struck a guy out,” Prochaska said, “he would yell out, ‘Just like the barbershop! Next man!’ He said that after every strikeout. That was a classic Mr. Ward quote.”

Together again, in Omaha

N.C. State began to renovate Doak Field in 2002, and some renovations were ongoing when John threw out the first pitch at the first game there in 2003. He was sick then. Cancer had weakened him.

“It had gotten all in his bone structure, and he was just really near death at that time,” Kate said. “But he went out there and threw the ball.”

In his final months, John carried on like he always did. He went to games. He harassed the umpires. He blew the duck calls. And yes, he dreamed that fantastical dream of the Wolfpack making it to Omaha.

John was already a longtime Wolfpack fan when they reached the College World Series in 1968, but he and Kate couldn’t go. He wasn’t yet the financial success that he would become after helping found Watco Corp., an HVAC company in Garner, in 1972.

“It wasn’t in the budget,” Kate said.

John always hoped that N.C. State would go back, hoping he would be there when the Wolfpack did.

After his death, Kate held onto John’s ashes. For years, she couldn’t bring herself to spread them around Doak Field, the way he wanted.

“It took me a long time,” she said. “Because I know the field is dragged, and one thing or another. It was something that I couldn’t bring myself to do, until finally four or five years ago – maybe more than that now – I decided we’d do something.”

One day at dusk John’s family and friends and minister gathered for a ceremony at Doak. They spread his ashes behind home plate, not far from the place where so many umpires had endured so many of his complaints.

Kate thought it was fitting, she said, “Because he was such a loudmouth with officials. And everybody said well now they better watch out because they’ll be hearing voices from the dead.”

There were still more ashes, and Kate wanted her children to have some – a reminder of their father. Kate has a son-in-law who is a professional glassblower, and so she came up with the idea to encase her husband’s ashes in a clear glass paperweight.

When it came back from the furnace, the ashes had crystallized into a brilliant white formation.

“In your body you have sodium, and in the ashes are sodium – and when it hits the hot furnace, like a glass blower has to have – it crystallizes,” Kate said. “There’s never been anything like it, I don’t think, because if you saw it, you wouldn’t know what it is.”

What it is, though, is a piece of John. Which is why Avent asked to have one of the paperweights. He carried it with him halfway across the country, to the one town where John wanted to see the Wolfpack play more than any other.

“That’s almost indescribable,” Kate said. “Because coach is like a son.”

When Avent arrived in Omaha last week, he kept the glass with John’s ashes inside a case in his hotel room. He planned to bring it to the dugout every day when the Wolfpack played. John Ward has been gone now for 10 years, but a piece of him is where he always wanted to be – in Omaha with the Wolfpack at the College World Series.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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