by Vincent Reda (August 14, 2006)
President Hall Remembered as a Renaissance Man Who Inspired the Best
When campus, regional, state and national leaders gathered on the academic podium Monday afternoon to participate in a "Remembrance" of the late University President Kermit L. Hall, it was moments in time shared with the man that shone through with greatest clarity.
The ten speakers assembled in front of the Campus Center fountain described Hall as a Renaissance man of multiple skills and accomplishments, but one whose extraordinary capacity for persuasion and inspiration came from a unique personal touch.
"You couldn't be around him ten seconds without knowing you were in the presence of a consummate salesman," said U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton of UAlbany's chief executive, who died the previous day in a swimming accident in Hilton Head, S.C. "He was ready to sell you, and you were ready to buy, that we could be anything we put our minds to."
She recalled speaking with Hall on many topics, including his legal scholarship that produced six authored and 22 edited books, and the future of higher education in New York. "But, boy, did his eyes light up when he talked about creating linkages between the University and China," said Clinton. "He made it a particular focus, not only of himself personally but of the University, to expand the global learning opportunities for our students and our faculty."
UAlbany Provost Susan Herbst said that people sometimes asked her what Kermit Hall was "really" like. "I will tell you that he was kind," she said. "He was deeply human. He loved to talk to people, figure out what drove them, what motivated them." She described walking through campus with Hall, and becoming terribly delayed in getting to their destination.
"He stopped to talk with students, to our gardeners, to faculty, to our bus drivers. It was comical and it was beautiful."
Yet, said Herbst, Hall was also complicated the way only brilliant people can be. "I will tell you that when a complicated person loves a place like a university, it's a wonderful thing," she said. "He liked the University at Albany because it had so many parts, so many challenges, so many people, and so many possibilities. He dreamed big for this place; he wanted us to reach as high as we could."
SUNY Chancellor John R. Ryan, who served as master of ceremonies for the event, recalled it was often hard to keep track of Hall, due to the President's penchant for the personal touch. Once at a UAlbany basketball game, the Chancellor turned to introduce the new president to some people, only to find that Hall was roaming the stands, conversing with students, and also visiting courtside, speaking with University cheerleaders.
On another occasion, when Hall joined Ryan on the latter's trip to The Ukraine and then Russia, the President showed up ten minutes late for their connecting flight. The Chancellor was not pleased initially. "That is, until I was told that he was teaching a class at a nearby Ukrainian university. I wasn't mad anymore."
Nick Chiuchiolo, president of the Student Association, said students also revered Hall's personal touch, both in his speaking with them and in his love of speaking out. "I knew that the University at Albany was an institution of quality, but Kermit Hall literally told the world that it was."
Congressman John Sweeney recounted a visit Hall made to his Congressional office a few weeks ago. "He was not shy about sharing his vision," said Sweeney. "He came with plans for the '08 budget cycle — even though we hadn't finished the '07 budget cycle."
Albany County Executive Michael Breslin spoke of his first meeting with Hall, where the President engaged him in a lengthy conversation about Kermit the Frog, and Mayor Jerry Jennings told of taking a walking tour of Albany's midtown with Hall and College of St. Rose President Mark Sullivan, and of Hall conversing with some UAlbany freshman who, two hours later, he would come across in an Albany bar. "'I thought you were freshmen,'" he said to them," recounted Jennings. "And they said, 'We are' — and boy, they got out of there fast."
James Anderson, Vice President for Student Success who knew Hall well from his days as Provost at North Carolina State University, spoke of Hall's "courage, his willingness to take a stand." He recalled Hall support for bringing a group of behaviorally challenged Albany High School students onto campus for classes "when it was not the popular thing to do." When the students received their high school diplomas this spring, Hall made a point to be there, said Anderson. "Kermit hugged them — and Kermit was not the hugging type."
Courage, intellectual and administrative enthusiasm, advocacy of community, vision, wit, intelligence and humanism — these were recurring themes in the one hour of brief speeches. George Philip, chair of the University Council which chose Kermit Hall as the University's 17th President, remarked: "He did all that we expected of him, and more."
Along with such accolades, however, were outpourings of grief. "I'm distraught; I'm heartbroken," said Anderson. "A difficult day for me," said Jennings. "When I heard the news this morning, I didn't believe it," said Clinton.
"There's much pain that's felt today," said Assemblyman Paul Tonko. "There's numbness — a great leader has been removed from our midst."
Yet all spoke about what Kermit Hall would want most — the continuation of his vision of the University as a leading institution of higher education. "That's a legacy of Kermit Hall's that will not be forgotten, and why we've been touched in meaningful measure by his short time with us," said Tomko. "It must be our mission to fulfill his legacy," said Clinton.
"So now what?" said Herbst. "What are we to do without our leader? To my mind, we do what he wanted us to do: Our jobs. Let's do our jobs as best we can, in his honor, and because we so admired him. If you teach, teach even better. If you coach, inspire our athletes with even greater enthusiasm. If you do research, think more deeply, push yourself. If you take care of this beautiful campus, make it even more beautiful.
"But most of all, please, love and care for our students — because that's what Kermit Hall was all about."
SA President Chiuchiolo added that students too, to honor Hall, would do their parts. "We will persevere," he said.
Chancellor Ryan concluded that great men, like President Kermit L. Hall, ultimately inspire us to dwell within the spirit of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."