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Keynote Speaker, Dedication of the Billy Hall, Jr.
August 20, 2007
Good morning, several weeks ago, Bilito called to ask if I would be a part of today’s happy occasion, the dedication of this building to William Nesbitt Hall, Jr. I eagerly accepted his invitation, pleased and deeply moved to be invited to join this program. Because our parents were best friends, my relationship to Billy and to his family began in my teen-age years and has continued throughout my entire adult life. So, Annabelle, Bilito, Mónica, and Sophia, thank you for allowing me to stand here with you. Billy Hall loved his family above all things, and I know he would burst with joy to see the future in Monica and Sophia.
We in Laredo tend to begin every conversation, whether we are explaining or questioning, with a history lesson. This is to be expected. We are, for the United States, an old city, isolated until recent times by distances hard to traverse. In addition, we have always been a strange, some might even say mongrel mix of cultures, religions, races, ethnic groups. In much of the world, at this very moment, people no more diverse than the citizens of this city kill, maim, and destroy each other. The Laredo miracle, if there is one, would be the story of how we have together managed to mold lives---peaceful, profitable, happy---from such potentially discordant roots. No one held a more unique spot in this Laredo mix than William Nesbitt Hall, Jr.
If one were to look only from the outside, Billy’s origins would look unremarkably American. His father, William Nesbitt Hall came from Arkansas to Laredo, Texas and married a local girl. But immediately the story diverges from the expected American tale. Billy’s mother, Alice, was both Bruni and Martin, making Billy part of two of the oldest and most prominent families in South Texas. His mother, whom I dearly loved, was full of wonderful stories of her young life in Laredo. “On Sundays we used to go for a drive,” Alice like to tell. “If we drove east, everything belonged to Grandfather Bruni. If we drove north, everything belonged to Grandfather Martin.” Not a bad heritage for a sensitive young man! In the end, the part of all these ranches that Billy received came from Grandfather Martin. And I know all of you know that few experiences pleased him more than to share his portion of the Martineña with legislators, politicians, dignitaries, the great and the semi-great, and most especially with his friends.
In addition to the vast holdings of both her grandfathers, Alice Bruni Hall's heritage included a clatter of cultures and ethnicities. Grandfather Martin was French and married a local girl, Tirza García. I am told by our expert on these matters, historian Jerry Thompson, that he can find no documentary evidence that Raymond Martin wrote English. All writing we have from him are either in French or Spanish. Why not? Who needed English when he came to Laredo? Grandfather Bruni was Italian, and married a direct descendant of Patrick Henry. Yes, the patriot, the “Give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry. Alice was immensely proud of her heritage, which she preferred to describe as Italian. It is hard to imagine such a jumble, even in America, the land of immigrants: French, Italian, Mexican, Spanish, and colonial American.
And of course, this jumble of culture produced complex and immensely interesting people. Few experiences for me as a teenager rivaled an Saturday evening with the Halls at the Cadillac Bar. Everyone who entered the restaurant came, straightaway, to Alice's table to check in. I remember one night a stranger happened by and struck up a conversation with Alice, who was always eager to see everyone, friends and newcomers alike. “You are so beautiful,” said the very distinguished looking man, which of course she was. Then he continued his compliment. “You have the map of Jerusalem all over your face!” “Pero, yo soy italiana,” Alice informed him. I'm not sure the man even understood Spanish. After this fellow wandered off, Billy asked his mother: “But Mother, are we Mexican?” “Tú acaso,” she replied. “Yo soy italiana."
Billy’s father, Bill Hall, came from Arkansas, bring to this amazing cross-cultural family the unadorned bluntness and honesty of middle America, the keen eye and sensibility of a newspaper man. And this brings me to the importance for us in remembering the story of this family. The most striking quality Billy inherited from both parents, indeed, his most striking quality as a man, was his uncanny ability to size people up, to hear what they were really saying, to grasp at once what they really meant. The South Texas Citizen, the newspaper that both Bill and Billy Hall brought into being and sustained, for many years served as the best way for Laredoans to remain connected to each other and to their city. But one venue was never sufficient for Billy. First studying the law, Billy found in politics the forum for expressing his irrepressible love of people. Happily for Laredo, Billy in the end chose politics as his most enduring interest. Whether in Austin with the legislature or in Laredo with Webb County, Billy filled all the spaces and all the hearts with his good humor, his warmth, and his tremendous interest in everyone around him.
Unlike going along with his parents for a big night at the Cadillac, going out with Billy Hall was, to tell the truth, at times, a test of patience. You couldn’t head with him toward a restaurant on an empty stomach. Before even sitting down at the table, Billy would sweep through the kitchen to hug all the cooks and employees, telling each one: “Ah, sí, claro, eres hijo de” and mention the father or mother of the man or woman he was greeting. While his parents sat at their table in the Cadillac and waited for the world to come greet them, which it obligingly did, Billy went himself to the tables of all other guests, hugging and kissing and asking about all the cousins, aunts, naming the ancestors of each person. If you went out to dinner with Billy Hall, you had to wait until everyone in the building got greeted, hugged, squeezed. Then you could sit down. And each time another person came through the door, the process began again.
Billy, during his years in Austin, became a crucial part of that amazing Laredo ability to direct resources and notoriety to an isolated, economically challenged city on the border. We Laredoans have always managed well the external political environment. None understood this better than Billy, as he swooped through the halls of our state capitol, scooping up legislators and staff, maneuvering them into place to best serve his constituents and his city. His work on behalf of Laredo Community College has been appropriately memorialized with the naming of a building in his honor on the new South Campus. Laredo State University, repeatedly threatened with closing by the state, survived to become Texas A&M International University in large part because of Billy's effort when he was in the legislature. Innumerable charitable works in our city came into being because Billy was always willing to take the lead and call upon his immense family to launch the effort. And no one was better to go to for advice out of or around a sticky, unhappy mess. Since he knew everyone, and their roots, strengths, and weaknesses, he could easily guide someone like me toward a sound plan of action.
How could we capture William Nesbitt Hall, Jr. in one easily remembered vision? Does literature offer an example which we might hear or see and think: Yes, this is Billy? I would offer the following poem, one I remember first reading in junior high school. While I liked it tremendously the first time I read it, and while I have over the years heard many references to it, Billy is the only person I have ever known that I believe truly embodied the spirit of this wonderful bit of verse.
***Read “The House by the Side of the Road” by Sam Walter Foss***
Billy's entire life was spent in intimate pursuit of his fellow men and women. He responded passionately to what they said and he understood what they didn't say, what they did and what they failed to do. If this famous poem captures his intent, it understates his method, the way he lived. Billy didn't just live by the side of the road, waiting for humanity to happen by. He carried his house with him and built it beside and with every person he met. It is impossible to think of him without smiling, laughing. Webb County is quite right to dedicate this building to him. And we are blessed to carry him forever in our hearts.
Ray M. Keck III
Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University