Tuesday, June 06, 2017

TOP STORY >> Robert Hall: Veteran, educator, letter writer

Leader executive editor

Robert Hall, 98, died last weekend in Jacksonville after his health deteriorated in recent months. He was an opinionated letter writer, an unabashed progressive who believed government should provide opportunities to poor and middle-class families like his own and help them become productive citizens.

Hall, a child of the Great Depression and a World War II veteran, was a soft-spoken gentleman, a longtime educator in Michigan, where he’d been a teacher, principal and school superintendent for 30 years. He was stationed at the Pine Bluff Arsenal during the Second World War and had family ties in Arkansas.

He’d divide his time between Arkansas and Michigan during his retirement years, but lately he stayed in Arkansas as travel became more difficult for him. But he stayed busy: Reading and writing letters to the editor and bowling in Cabot every Monday. He began bowling in his 70s.

He, like millions of other veterans, benefited from the G.I. Bill, which helped him get his master’s degree in 1951.

He went to Central Michigan University in 1937 after he borrowed $50, graduating in 1941. He repaid the loan with his first check from the Army, which he joined in 1941. (See obituary, p. 4.)

Hall was born on Dec. 23, 1918, when Woodrow Wilson was president, and he lived under 18 other presidents. Hall met President Truman, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy, when he was running for President in 1960 and Hall was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress in 1958.

Robert Hall was strictly old school, a class act. He’d never insult anyone, but it upset him how far our values had declined, especially the loss of civility as politicians double-talked their way into office and picked our pockets while they were at it.

He was a Bernie Sanders supporter in the last election and supported universal health care because he knew politicians and insurance companies would mess up health care if they could get their hands on it.

One way to achieve universal health care, he wrote in one of his letters, “would be to cover all ages of the population under the current Medicare umbrella....The one option I would strongly object to would be to return control of medical services content back over to insurance companies!”

He often visited The Leader, bringing neatly typed letters to the editor with him while his wife, Doris, stayed in the car. The well-written letters, mostly about the plight of the middle class against big-money interests, reminded you of a long-gone era, when even high school graduates were expected to write and think clearly.

Today, when one-third of the nation is functionally illiterate — they cannot write a complete English sentence or make out a check and whose Facebook rants pass for deep thought — rereading Hall’s letters reminds you how much our country has changed.

His letters could have run as newspaper editorials: They were well-researched, cogently argued and made you root for the little guy, who was a victim of a rigged game against giant financiers who bought elections and received special favors in return.

He wanted banks and campaign financing regulated. “When representatives in Arkansas or Michigan receive huge sums of campaign money from Wall Street banks or the Koch brothers,” he wrote, “they are strongly obligated to favor Main Street in vital legislative matters. Our interests can only be considered if they do not conflict with their benefactors. Or democracy (of, by and for the people) becomes a plutocracy (of, by and for the elite).”

“Congress needs to shed its reluctance to stand up against the big money interests and re-enact the Glass-Steagall Act that served this country so well for some 60 years!” he wrote in another letter.

If you heard him read these words in his flat Midwestern accent, you would hear a voice from an era when most people lived in isolated hamlets as he did, when radio was the new medium of mass communication and people still believed they could do better than their parents.

Hall taught school for one year until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, when he soon volunteered for the Army during the Second World War.

He was selected to officer candidate school. After graduating as a first lieutenant, he was sent to the Pine Bluff Arsenal as a shift officer in munitions production. Hall was later reassigned to the chemical warfare research lab in Edgewood, N.J.

Hall served four years in the Army staying in the United States for the entire war.

“I worked on flame throwers and fuels. The object was to increase the oxygen consumption of the fuel of the flame thrower,” Hall said.

“The Japanese would use caves as bunkers. The flamethrowers worked efficiently burning up the oxygen and they would suffocate,” he said.

Hall’s connection to Jacksonville started when he visited his daughter, Vicki. She was a personnel director for Redmond Industry in Michigan. The small electric motor manufacturing company moved to Jacksonville and she relocated here.

The company was later known as Franklin Electric.

He was a member of the McDonald’s Walmart Coffee Clutch Friends in Jacksonville, which met almost daily at 3 p.m. He was the oldest member, but there were several other World War II veterans in the club, including the late T.P. White. They were a self-effacing group, and sitting with them was like going back in time, maybe as far back as the 1920s and ’30s when they were growing up. Nobody raised their voice or argued and everyone’s viewpoint was respected.

He called last month to say he wouldn’t write any more letters. He hadn’t been feeling well, but he wanted us to have a collection of his letters and reminiscences.

When we visited him at his home that evening, he looked weak and didn’t have much of an appetite.

He and his wife, Doris, who is 90, were still bowling on Mondays at Allfam Bowling in Cabot until a few months ago. They took advantage of the special senior rate from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. when games are $1.49 each instead of the regular $3.29 per game before 4 p.m.

“We like the sociability of the group and the exercise,” Hall told our reporter Jeffrey Smith last summer.

Bill Allen, Allfam’s owner, was sad to hear of Robert Hall’s passing when we called him on Monday.

“He was one of my special customers,” Allen recalled. “He was here to exercise and visit with friends. He bowled three games every week. He always wore his World War II veteran’s cap. We honored him on Veterans Day. We need to celebrate what he accomplished.”

The Halls often played with Geoff Rushton, 91, also of Jacksonville who was from Great Britain. The three met 20 years ago while playing at the Sherwood bowling alley until it closed. “Lane 5 was their special lane,” Allen told us. “Eventually he had to go to a lighter ball, and you can’t knock down as many pins. We’ll miss seeing him.”

“They called them the Greatest Generation for a reason,” Allen said.