Martha Ballenger '69 to Retire After Guiding UVA Law Students for 9 Years
As members of the Class of 2014 gather for the last time during graduation Sunday at the University of Virginia School of Law, the event will mark the final school ceremony for a 1969 graduate as well.
Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Martha Ballenger will retire May 24 after nine years as a valued guide to the Law School's students, following a career spent in private practice, and as a teacher and volunteer at UVA Law.
"I hope to still be a part of the Law School community in any ways that I can contribute," Ballenger said. "I'll miss the energy and enthusiasm of the students, and I'll miss the wonderful people I work with, who have become like family to me."
When she started law school after graduating from Duke University with a political science degree, she was one of only 12 women among the 700 students at Virginia. Professor Richard Bonnie met Ballenger, then Martha Dantzler, on the first day of classes.
"It was easy for people to meet Martha and to know who she was," Bonnie said. "It has always been noteworthy to me, for 47 years, that she knew everybody else."
Bonnie said Ballenger, whom he described as his best friend in law school and likely the most popular student, was a "pioneer" for being one of the first female students at a time when some senior faculty resisted women attending.
"One professor would not call on a woman," he said.
Ballenger was not alone. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz '68 now serves on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Nancy Buc '69 is a former chief counsel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a partner at Buc & Beardsley in Washington, D.C.
"These are obviously very talented women," Bonnie said. "Martha was an outstanding law student and of course had a successful career in practice and in the academy."
For her part, Ballenger loved law school.
"It was an amazing intellectual challenge to have a different way of thinking and approaching analysis, problem-solving and strategizing open up to me," she said. "The people I met here were very smart and interesting, but we also had a great deal of fun. And I loved the beautiful Charlottesville setting — everything about the Law School felt just right for me."
She recalled particularly enjoying Professor Hardy Dillard's lectures. Classmates would bring their dates from Friday night to his Saturday morning Contracts class. It was "standing-room only," she said, "and he was in his element — the larger the audience, the better."
After law school, Ballenger worked on legal projects for Duke University, and over the years also practiced in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. She most recently focused on transactional work in Charleston, South Carolina, where she spent 22 of her 32 years in practice.
From 1979 to 1982, Ballenger returned to the Law School to teach Juvenile Courts, Bioethics and the Law, and small sections of Contracts. The toughest part of teaching was "staying ahead of the students — they were so bright," she said.
Bonnie said Ballenger became "almost a mother" to her small section.
"She was very close to her students when she was a teacher," he said.
Over the years, Ballenger also volunteered for the Law School Foundation, including serving on the Alumni Council, as national chair of the annual fund campaign, and as a member of and vice chair and counsel to the Foundation Board.
Her sons graduated from the Law School as well. Matthew Ballenger '02 practices at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., and is married to classmate Katherine ("Kit" Lasher) Ballenger '02. Scott Ballenger '96 practices with the appellate group at Latham & Watkins, also in D.C.
When the Student Affairs position became available in 2005, her sons encouraged her to apply.
"I was pleased that they thought this would be a good role for me," she said. "They also knew I wanted to return to Charlottesville and how much I love the Law School. I had practiced for a very long time, and they knew that a different challenge would be a welcome change for me."
Ballenger's new job allowed her to develop close ties to a new generation of UVA Law students and reengage with the intellectual life of the school.
"We continue to attract incredible students who work hard and have broad interests, but who also have fun together," Ballenger said. "The special personality traits that characterize our graduates are honed here, but I think our students also self-select because they recognize that this is a place that plays to their strengths."
The role of the Student Affairs Office in student life begins with orientation. Ballenger also worked with students in forming new organizations and advised them on conforming to University policies, assisted students with disabilities and other issues requiring accommodations, and counseled students going through personal crises.
"I have learned that we have some real unsung heroes among our students — students who have to deal with very challenging personal circumstances in addition to the challenging academic work," she said.
Additionally, Ballenger oversaw the Law School's Peer Advisor program, through which 75 to 85 upperclassmen in a given year serve as volunteer mentors to first-year, LL.M. and transfer students.
"I believe that the PA Program is a primary vehicle for transmitting the Law School's spirit of collegiality from generation to generation," she said. "I'm very proud of the contribution the Peer Advisors make in the life of our community."
Brian Park '14, who served as Student Bar Association president, said he consulted with Ballenger weekly.
"She goes out of her way to make sure that everyone feels accommodated and at home at the Law School," Park said. "I think she's done an incredible job of making sure people buy in to the atmosphere at the Law School and the atmosphere we try to create."
Bonnie said Ballenger was "ideally suited" to be the school's head of Student Affairs.
"She is so discreet," he said. "She has extraordinarily good judgment about everything."
Ballenger is looking forward to traveling and spending more time with her family, including four grandchildren. She's going to Russia this summer, and in March will journey to Iwo Jima on the one day a year Japan permits access to veterans and their descendants. Her sons arranged the trip as a retirement gift and to honor the grandfather they never met. Next year's Reunion of Honor, as the event is called, will mark the 70th anniversary of the battle.
"I am so touched that my boys planned this," she said. "It will be an incredible experience for me to be able to stand with my sons on the beach where my father died. What an amazing gift."
When asked about her hopes for UVA Law, Ballenger said she hoped it will continue to rank among the best law schools.
"I hope we'll always be known for the special professionals we send out — lawyers who are intellectually rigorous and are effective, zealous advocates but who also understand the importance of civility, teamwork and cooperation," she said. "I hope that, as has been true for generations, our graduates will continue to remember their years here with appreciation and affection and will help provide the support necessary to keep the wind in our sails."
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.