Nebraska’s Ron Hull typifies ‘the very best of us’
It came down to Ron Hull.
In September, the seven members of the Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission met in Lincoln to decide whether to induct civil rights leader and Omaha native Malcolm X.
Three members were in favor of his induction. Three were opposed. After years of debate and several failed attempts to get the slain civil rights leader into the hall, the long-controversial effort now would be decided by one man.
It was up to Hull, a silver-haired 92-year-old, a longtime Nebraska Public Media leader, public television pioneer and the Hall of Fame’s chair, to break the tie.
So he stood and did: Yes.
The commission then decided to revote and to induct Malcolm X unanimously, making him the first Black person to be inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
Supporters of the effort at the hearing cheered and clapped, hugged and high-fived.
Hull is now working with a daughter of Malcolm X, Ilyasah Shabazz, on the committee that will select the artist for her father’s bronze bust. When completed, the statue will be on view in the capitol building.
It’s just the latest chapter in Ron Hull’s frequently star-crossed, doggedly optimistic and oh-so-Nebraska life.
His sense for what makes good television has shaped Nebraska Public Media and PBS. His visionary leadership helped win friends for public television in Washington, D.C. He built enduring friendships with many of Nebraska’s most famed 20th century figures.
During that career, as a member of the Hall of Fame Commission, Hull had long championed Malcolm X.
He became an admirer when he read Alex Haley’s famed biography of the civil rights leader. He listened as young Black students showed up at commission meetings to talk about how Malcom X inspired them.
He has long voted for Malcolm X’s induction — even, in 2007, when he was the only member to do so.
Fifteen years later, Hull told his fellow commission members why a Black activist who courted controversy should be in the Nebraska Hall of Fame. Now, thanks to Hull — and he notes, many others — Malcolm X is there.
“Every now and then something turns out right,” Hull said.
That sentiment, according to Nebraska Public Media senior producer-director Michele Wolford, is vintage Ron Hull.
“He’s just the very best of us,” she said. “He genuinely believes in the importance of exploring and documenting our history and culture. It’s in his wiring.”
Television as tool
Hull has always believed that public television is a force for education — for opening up a world of possibilities to its viewers.
He helped form the Nebraska public television network. He hired gifted producers and directors. On-camera, he hosted film series and fund drives and interviewed literary giants Mari Sandoz, John Neihardt and Wright Morris as well as actress Sandy Dennis and talk show legend Dick Cavett. Many of them became lifelong friends.
He’s also involved in preservation efforts honoring the legacies of Sandoz, Neihardt and Nebraska author Willa Cather.
And he helped to found the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, now known as Vision Maker Media.
In the 1980s he worked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., as program fund director. During Hull’s six-year tenure, CPB underwrote the “NOVA” series. Hull initiated “The American Experience,” among other programs that became PBS staples. Federal appropriations for public broadcasting doubled during his stint.
Rod Bates, former general manager of Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, said Hull proved masterful at dealing with Beltway politics, keeping the focus on quality programming.
Today, Hull is emeritus professor of broadcasting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and senior adviser to Nebraska Public Media.
Hull’s beginnings didn’t exactly foreshadow his impressive, six-decade TV career.
Born in a Deadwood, South Dakota, brothel, he said he was abandoned to the care of the madam, who placed him for adoption. Hull’s adoptive parents gave him a loving, stable life in Rapid City, where his passion for literature and theater bloomed.
While serving in the U.S. Army, he learned television by producing live broadcast variety shows at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1953. After his military discharge, he studied the science of television at Syracuse University. Then he went on a cross-country search for a TV job and found one in Lincoln. The rest is history.
This believer that relationships are “the essence of our lives” flourished in the collaborative world of television.
“From the first glimmer of an idea before it hits the page all the way through to telecast, it takes so many people and coordination,” Hull said. “It’s such … a team effort. Through those relationships, everything is accomplished or not.”
Hull has immersed himself in his adopted state’s history and culture and has become a cheerleader for public media’s educational capacities.
He believes in television’s power. He wants it to be used for good.
“Television affects how people think. It goes right into their heads. It is a terribly powerful instrument of persuasion. I identified with that from the beginning. The measure’s always been: ‘Is this going to enhance somebody’s life?’”
In the mid 1950s, Nebraska Public Media godfather Jack McBride envisioned creating a statewide network. He found allies in state senators who saw the potential in how public TV could better lives, particularly in areas that did not yet have access to it.
“To me, one of the important things about public broadcasting is never to lose that local connection with local Nebraska people. They own the station,” Hull said. “And we’ve always run this place based upon that.”
Nebraska Public Media’s Wolford sees Hull as a pioneer, someone who helped make public television what it is.
“Ron is the heart and soul of Nebraska Public Media,” she said. “He is still curious, still learning, still dedicated to the power of stories and the promise and purpose of public media.”
It’s a wonderful life
Despite America’s deep divisions, Hull, ever the eternal optimist, sees hope.
He says he still believes in the human spirit and always will.
“I believe in the basic integrity, honesty and innate intelligence of the common man, of which I’m one. A lot of people have learned a lot the last few years, and I think it’s showing up,” Hull said.
“Democracy is higher up in the list of importance to many Americans than it was before. We tended to take it for granted. I think we’ll muddle through and come out ahead.”
Good health is something Hull doesn’t take for granted. He has pulmonary fibrosis and was recently hospitalized, recovering from pneumonia. Now he’s back at work, happy to be productive once again.
“One of the secrets to having a good career is having a good time. If you’re not having a good time, you’re doing something wrong. It’s how I’ve lived,” he said.
Ron Hull thinks that people yearn to find meaning in their lives. Television has helped him find that meaning.
“I love life,” he said. “If it’s going to take being on an oxygen tube 24/7, count me in.”
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