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John Hall: Kentucky Commodore

From his early days at Vanderbilt University to his career at Ashland Oil, John Hall thrived on competition while exhibiting tenacity and compassion. Hall, who died in 2021 at age 89, spearheaded many worthy causes in Kentucky, including education and cancer research.
Length 57:35 Premiere: 04/26/16

John Hall: The Kentucky Commodore

From his early days at Vanderbilt University to his career at Ashland Oil, John Hall thrived on competition while exhibiting tenacity and compassion. Now a well-known philanthropist, Hall has spearheaded many worthy causes in Kentucky, including education and cancer research.

His life story is told in the KET documentary, “John Hall: The Kentucky Commodore.”

Author Jeff Rodengen, who has interviewed thousands of industry leaders, said Hall is a standout.

“I can’t think of anyone that I thought more of than John Hall, for his integrity, for his honesty, for his quick thinking, and for his ability to bring a team together so that they were happy to be doing the same thing at the same time,” he said.

Though he was born in 1932 in Dallas, Texas, Hall’s family roots were in Kentucky and Tennessee. “Dad was a salesman most of his life. He studied engineering at Vanderbilt, but during the Depression, of course, there were very limited opportunities,” Hall recalled.

The family moved to Dallas, but by 1935 they were back in Tennessee. Hall had a paper route and worked for the railroad on summer breaks. He played high school football and received scholarship offers from Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Hall chose Vanderbilt, his father’s alma mater.

Former teammate Don Orr recalled that Hall was tough. “He’d fight you for every inch of the ground. He’s still that way. He’s competitive as hell,” he said.

Dr. Ken Galloway, former dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, said Hall is modest about his academic accomplishments, but “you don’t graduate magna cum laude in chemical engineering and not be a great student one way or the other.”

After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1955, he married Ann McQuiddy. Hall recalled a professor telling the class that they must go out and be captains of industry. Hall got a job at Esso, one of the largest petroleum manufacturers in the world.

The couple’s lives were turned upside down when Ann was diagnosed with a bone tumor in her hip.

She had surgery to remove it, but they were told the tumor would likely continue coming back, meaning repeated surgeries. “She would go in and they would remove the tumors at the time, and maybe we could make it six or nine months before they’d have to do it again,” Hall said. “So it was not an easy thing for her.”

The couple wanted to be close to family, so Hall left his job at Esso and took a position with Ashland Oil in Kentucky in 1957.

Under founder Paul Blazer, Ashland had become the largest independent oil company in the nation. Hall began as assistant to the coordinator of research and development. His analytical skills caught the eye of Blazer, and in 1965 Hall was named his executive assistant.

“I would say he was a tough task master, but a nice one,” he said of Blazer.

Hall embraced Blazer’s idea of the company as family. Hall’s own family grew with the adoption of a son in 1971.

Ann, who had battled recurring cancer for years, died in 1972 at the age of 40. His brother, Jim, said Hall was devastated by the loss. “It was a challenging time—a very difficult time to talk about.”

Dealing with Iran
Hall immersed himself in this work, and his parents moved to Ashland to help care for their grandson, Jay. Hall’s responsibilities called for extensive travel. By 1979, Hall had become vice president in charge of refining.

With the nation facing a shortage of crude oil, in 1979 Hall flew to Iran to salvage a deal with the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Khomeini.

“The whole appearance of the place was terrible,” he recalled. “They had people in the streets pushing over cars, fighting, almost no women working in the office building– just a mean sort of atmosphere. You weren’t sure if you could get out safely.”

Hall negotiated a deal. “It took us a while to get the points down. So then I said I guess we ought to type this thing up so we can all look at it. And they said we don’t have anybody here who can type.”

An Iranian man who could write English volunteered to write up the deal by hand on a piece of paper. “We all initialed it, et cetera. That’s the only time we’ve done a contract like that.”

Taking Charge
Ashland Oil grew from $1 billion in sales in 1969 to $6.74 billion in 1979. When CEO Orin E. Atkins resigned in 1981, Hall was tapped to replace him. Hall’s leadership won the confidence and respect of Ashland employees and other industry leaders.

“John works the problem,” said Margaret Thomson, former director of employee and shareholder communications. He’s not the person out there who’s flamboyant or who has a big personality, but he is the person who can get to the answers.”

Hall found a new asset in his personal life when he met his second wife, Donna Stouffer.

Donna spoke to the rector of her church about a wedding date, but the rector said the couple would have to attend pre-marriage counseling according to church rules. Donna said John’s travel schedule would make that impossible.

“And somehow – I can’t even remember how Vanderbilt came up in the conversation,” she said. “But when it did, he said, ‘he went to Vanderbilt?’ And I said yes. And he said, ‘well I did too. I’m sure he is just fine and this will work. We’ll go forward with the date.’ So that was how it happened. Vanderbilt to the rescue.”

The Pittsburgh Oil Spill
On Jan. 2, 1988, Hall got a call telling him an Ashland Oil tank had leaked diesel oil into the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh. As the severity of the situation became clear, Hall went to Pittsburgh to investigate. “The further I dug, the madder I got,” he recalled.

Over a million gallons had spilled, the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history at that time, leaving the city’s suburbs without drinking water. The tank in question had been moved from Cleveland and rebuilt in pieces in Pittsburgh.

“Everywhere I looked, we had done something wrong,” Hall said.

Harry Wiley, former director of advertising and communications for Ashland Oil, recalled that Ashland’s communications department was waiting for its attorneys to tell them what the company was going to do. “And John Hall went up there and said it’s our mistake. We did it. We’ll fix it. We’ll take care of it. And the lawyers went Aw, – – – -.”

Hall held a press conference and told the crowd the spill was Ashland Oil’s fault. At the end of the conference, he explained that “you always want to do what is right.”

“That was not a talking point,” said Dan Lacy, former vice president of corporate affairs for Ashland. “That was John, under pressure, in the moment, speaking from his heart.”

Ashland was fined $2.5 million for violations for the Clean Water Act. The cleanup cost $40 million. Ashland’s response to the crisis won praise, however.

Turning to Education
In the 1980’s the business community turned its attention to raising achievement in Kentucky’s schools. Hall put Ashland Oil’s marketing money behind a public awareness campaign. He worked with David Jones Sr. of Humana and Oz Nelson of UPS to spearhead the drive for transforming education in the state, creating the Partnership for Kentucky Education.

Jones recalled their commitment. “It took a lot of time. And the three of us agreed that we would give 10 years to that effort,” Jones recalled.

The result was the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA). Virginia Fox, Kentucky’s commissioner of education from 2004-06, said KERA was the most dramatic education transformation in U.S. history.

Life in Retirement
In 1996 at age 64, Hall retired from Ashland Oil. His last day on the job, he walked out to a full house cheering him on. He waved, hugged co-workers, and the crowd watched him walk out the door to his car, former Ashland exec Dan Lacy said.

“He turns one last time to wave, and he starts to get in his car–and he’d forgotten his keys,” Lacy said. “I mean it was hysterical. His secretary, of course, came running immediately with his car keys. But it was just so warm and funny and personable and humble. It was John.”

In retirement, John was recruited to serve on numerous corporate boards, including CSX, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the Markey Cancer Center, and Humana.

“I think the analytical ability that John has leads to better decisions than might be made by someone without that background,” said Jones.”…You could always depend on John to tell you the truth.”

The Halls faced another challenge a year into his retirement when Donna Hall was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her treatment was successful, and the couple continued their philanthropic endeavors. They live part of the year in southwest Florida, where they are involved in the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Hall faithfully attends Vanderbilt football games. “Not only is he our number one supporter, but he also makes sure we toe the line and we’re accountable to what our goals and missions should be,” said David Williams II, vice chancellor of athletics and university affairs at Vanderbilt.

“John is one of those people who was born with his giving shoes on,” said Dr. Nicholas Zeppos, Vanderbilt’s chancellor. “ … I think if he won the lottery, he’d give me the ticket.”

Hall also served as chair of the Commonwealth Fund for KET and serves now as its chair emeritus.

“Mr. Hall’s only agenda [in his several board roles] is the highest articulation of that institution’s mission,” said former Ky. education commissioner Fox. “He is still the most selfless, humble corporate or government leader barring none that I have ever met—as well as being the most skilled.”

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