There has been a disturbance in the force. Bill Hall has passed away.
The first time I met Bill Hall I was an impressionable 13-year-old in the company of my dad, a force of nature whose esteem was not easily earned. Pointing to a gentleman some way from us on the sidewalk, Dad said, “There’s Bill Hall. I want you to meet him. He’s the editorial page editor for the Lewiston Morning Tribune.”
I could tell by Dad’s tone of voice that he held this Bill Hall fellow in high regard.
As he saw us approaching, Bill greeted my Dad with mingled wariness and respect, no doubt bracing for Dad to hold forth, as he was wont to do, on the latest issue of the day. But that day Dad wanted only to introduce Bill to his young daughter and to impress upon her his belief that journalists were important members of the community and political writers had tremendous ability to influence public opinion.
Bill was gracious and greeted me warmly. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, we went on our way, and I remember Dad saying, “I don’t always agree with Bill Hall, but he does what an opinion writer ought to do – he makes people think.”
Indeed he did.
I was a nerdy kid, one who read the editorial page before I read the funny page. I cut my teeth on politics reading Bill’s columns. It was the late 60s and there was no dearth of fodder for a decidedly independent-minded political writer. With the support and encouragement of publisher Bud Alford and later his son Butch, Bill pulled no punches. His hard-hitting commentary was frequently punctuated with humor.
Bill delighted in hoisting self-satisfied office-holders on their own smug petards. And though his world view was most often left of center, he did not hesitate to hold to account those he admired when he thought they fell short.
In my senior year in high school, I was among a group of students who had somehow come to understand that Bill enjoyed our company and would welcome us to his home. He loved to share his thinking about contemporary issues, and was eager to hear our take on the topics of the day.
Bill could be provocative, both in print and in person, and occasionally he would say something a bit outrageous to elicit a response. If you didn't catch the twinkle in his eye, you might think he meant it.
Once, when a group of us was visiting, Bill said something with which I disagreed, and I offered another perspective. He forcefully rebutted, and I was quick to concede my point. Bill wouldn’t have it. “Betty, defend your position. Don’t just accept mine.” And so I did. He could not have been prouder.
Two decades later, in my bid for Congress, Bill was in the room when the Lewiston Tribune staff grilled me on any number of issues. I stated my positions without hesitation and, when pressed, defended them with vigor. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Bill remembered, as I did, his early instruction.
The last time I saw Bill Hall was at the memorial service for another north Idaho statesman, Mike Mitchell. Several months earlier, with the help of his beloved wife Sharon, Bill had penned a column letting his readers know that the column would be his last, explaining he had been diagnosed not only with cancer, but with progressive cognitive impairment.
Yet, as I visited with Bill after the service, he seemed his old self – bright-eyed, quick-witted, and, though the circumstances were sad, delighted to see old friends. We had a warm reunion, and I was about to thank him for having a profound impact on my thinking and writing, for encouraging a shy, but civic-minded high school student to express herself well and stay true to her convictions.
But then he and I were both drawn into conversations with others, and the moment passed. Later, I thought to myself, “I will see Bill Hall again before long and thank him then.”
Death has a way of bringing one up short.
When I learned yesterday afternoon that Bill had passed away, my first thought was profound regret that I had not explicitly thanked him for his mentorship and told him how much his friendship had meant to me. But believing, as I do, that our departed loved ones know our hearts, I thank him now.
I thank Bill Hall for years of informed and influential prose that stimulated civic discussion, making his readers wiser and our communities better. I thank him for his tutorials, often impromptu, on rhetoric, argument, and logic. And I thank him for modeling excellence in punditry.
Finally, I thank Bill for his many years of friendship and for seeing some potential in a teenager with strong opinions who wanted to make a difference in the world and encouraging her to do so. I expect I speak for many in noting that Bill was, quite simply, an extraordinary mentor. As my Dad rightly noted so many years ago, he made people think.
Indeed, there has been a disturbance in the force.