Kermit L. Hall (1944-2006)

Paul Finkelman and Linda K. Kerber, January 2007

On August 13, 2006, Kermit L. Hall died of a heart attack while swimming at Hilton Head, South Carolina. As a historian, Kermit Hall was a significant force in the modern revitalization of legal history while connecting legal and constitutional history to other disciplines, especially political theory. The son of a tire worker and bookkeeper, Hall was a first generation college graduate, earning a BA from Akron City University (now the University of Akron) in 1966, an MA from Syracuse University (1967), and a PhD from the University of Minnesota (1972). Between his MA and PhD he served as a captain in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. In 1980 he received a Master of Science in Law from Yale Law School. After a career in teaching (at Vanderbilt, Wayne State, and the University of Florida), Hall moved into administration in 1992, serving as a dean at the University of Tulsa and at Ohio State, as provost at North Carolina State, and then as president of Utah State from 2000 to 2004. In the early winter of 2004 he became president of the University at Albany, which is part of the State University of New York.

Kermit Hall published about 75 scholarly articles and book chapters, mostly on constitutional history, the Supreme Court, and legal history. He was the author or editor of more than 25 books, including The Magic Mirror: Law in American History (1989), The Oxford Companion to American Law (2002), and American Legal History: Cases and Materials (3d ed., 2005, with Paul Finkelman and James W. Ely, Jr.), An Uncertain Tradition: The South and the American Constitutional Tradition (1989 with James W. Ely, Jr.), and Constitutionalism and Culture: Writing the New American Constitutional History (2002 with Van Burkleo and Kaczorowski). He is perhaps best known for his Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court (2d ed., 2005), which won a number of prizes. By the standards of a scholarly reference book, the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court was a minor best seller, going through two editions under his editorship. During his career Hall served on numerous professional committees and boards, including the Truman Foundation Selection Committee and the Rhodes Scholar Selection Committee. He gave hundreds of lectures throughout the nation and overseas, and despite moving into administration, continued to attend scholarly conferences.

Beyond the classroom and the world of academic publishing, Kermit Hall was a significant public intellectual. Even while president of two universities, he participated in Teaching of American History Grants and ran seminars and institutes for the Center for Civic Education. He appeared on TV and was often on the radio. His most important public contribution was undoubtedly his service on the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board. President Bill Clinton appointed him to the board in 1993 and he was confirmed by the Senate in February 1994.

Kermit Hall was deeply committed to fine scholarship, good teaching, and public education. Indicative of this commitment was his first act as president of the University at Albany. He rejected the idea of an elaborate presidential inauguration and insisted that the funds allocated for the inauguration be used to start a scholarship fund at the university. He then contributed some of his own resources to the scholarship fund. Immediately after assuming the presidency at Albany, Hall took steps to create the first Honors College at the university. Even as a university president, he continued to be an active scholar. He was the co-editor of Studies in Southern Legal History at the University of Georgia Press and continued to write and publish. Reflecting his commitment to teaching, Hall taught undergraduates while serving as a university president.

Most historians saw him as a powerful force within the profession—smart, thoughtful, energetic, always involved, and ever ready to help undergraduates, graduate students, and younger scholars. Impressively tall, with a quick smile, he was a true presence at scholarly meetings.

Beyond his scholarly life, Hall was a jazz aficionado and a strong supporter of the arts. He served on the boards of the Utah Opera, the Carolina Ballet, and the Columbus Symphony. Kermit was an accomplished fisherman, a tenacious bird watcher, and someone who at age 61 still drove a vintage red Corvette. He will be deeply missed by those of us who worked with him and knew him well, and by countless others who benefited from his scholarship. His early and untimely death at age 61 is a tragic loss for the academic community.

—Paul Finkelman, Albany Law School

Linda K. Kerber, AHA president for 2006, adds:

Kermit Hall's death reminded me of the American Society for Legal History meeting I attended in Houston when I was president-elect of the OAH, where we were all moaning about the de-funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities (this was 1996 or so and its budget had been slashed by a third). But Kermit turned fruitless fretting into practical action. He took me aside; he had some thoughts, he said. There were too many academic institutions that weren't doing enough to articulate what the NEH meant and how much they depended on it, and we—Kermit and I—could do a lot to push them to do more. Following up on that conversation with phone calls and e-mails, he shepherded me to an American Association of Universities board meeting in Washington (after which, I seem to remember, they instructed their lobbyist to give higher priority on the re-funding of the NEH); to a meeting—in O'Hare Airport—of the provosts of the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the consortium of the Big Ten plus two universities); and then to a meeting of NASULGC (National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges). Kermit was then dean of humanities at Ohio State University and he knew when these meetings were held and how to get us on the agenda. In each case the message was, in part, your tenure system is dependent on the peer review and grants that NEH offers; why are you not energetically engaging this disaster? How much time does your university president spend with your congressional representatives on the state of funding for NEH (as contrasted to funding for NSF or NIH)? Kermit tutored me in the appropriate demeanor when talking to administrators (he insisted I have numbers, and indeed, I came armed). And he was wonderful to watch in action. The little campaign that we did together was just a minor bit of what he was doing in a major way, day after day.

I don't know how much difference we made. But when I see federal support for the humanities playing a somewhat larger role in the agendas of the AAU and of some university deans and presidents, I think of Kermit, and his sense of how to persuade busy people to take on even more burdens, and his deep commitment to the art form that is building a university. And when my colleagues win NEH fellowships I wish they knew to be thankful to Kermit for all he did to stabilize those fellowships.

I saw Kermit briefly in the hallways at the last ASLH meeting, and we said we must have a cup of coffee. And then we didn't. Alas.

—Linda K. Kerber
University of Iowa