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 members 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 and 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 induct Malcolm X unanimously, making him the first Black Nebraskan to be inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
Supporters of the effort who had attended 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 twisting, turning frequently star-crossed and yet 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.
His appreciation for talent cemented enduring relationships with major 20th century writers, actors and celebrities, many of them Nebraskan.
And he’s traveled the world, intimately learning other cultures and learning about himself, too.
During his career, as a member of the Hall of Fame Commission, Hull has 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 students, many of them Black, showed up at commission meetings to talk about how Malcolm X inspired them and to urge commission members to induct him into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
Hull had long voted for Malcolm X’s induction – even, in 2007, when he was the only member willing to do so.
Fifteen years later, Hull stood and told his fellow commissioners 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.
“The people of Nebraska have done this. That’s the joy of it,” Hull said. “Every now and then something turns out right.”
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 believes all things are possible through education. It’s what first captivated him about public television’s potential and still does.
“It’s the combination of education and all the arts brought into an educational setting. I deeply believe it is through education we move everything forward.”
Hull 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.
He’s involved in preservation efforts honoring the legacies of Sandoz, Neihardt and Nebraska author Willa Cather. He was a U.S. Foreign Service telecommunications adviser to the government of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Later, he returned to Vietnam to film a PBS documentary. He was among public TV executives selected to go to China to foster better U.S.-China relations. He was a Fulbright guest lecturer in international broadcasting in Taiwan.
His support of multicultural initiatives extended to founding 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 and Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Hull initiated “The American Experience,” among other PBS staple programs. 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, not personalities or agendas.
Today, Hull is emeritus professor of broadcasting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and senior adviser to Nebraska Public Media.
During his six decades in television, he has received numerous awards, including induction into the Gold Circle honor society of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Travel during his career fed an intense curiosity. He’s traveled the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian Railways. Nepal is among his favorite destinations. The 1937 movie classic “Lost Horizon” about finding Shangri-La is his touchstone for a utopia that idealists like himself strive to create. Television and travel are his means for finding harmony across geography and cultures.
Hull’s beginnings did not exactly foreshadow his becoming a citizen of the world and international influencer. Born in a Deadwood, S.D. 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.
Serving in the U.S. Army (1953-1954), he learned television by producing live broadcast “soldier” variety shows at Fort Sill, Okla. 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 man who believes 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 to create,” Hull said. “It’s such a cooperative thing, 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 said he believes in the power of radio and television and what they can do: “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 of how it would enhance lives, especially in … areas without ready access to these things,” Hull said. “In my opinion it has really made a difference.
“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 (Nebraska public broadcasting) based upon that.”
Bates admires Hull’s “for the greater good” instincts: “He focuses on what’s in the best interests of the people who need or want public broadcasting. He takes that very seriously.”
Nebraska Public Media’s Wolford described Hull as a pioneer, someone who helped make PBS and Nebraska Public Media 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. He is beloved and respected by colleagues here and across public television.”
It’s a wonderful life
Despite America’s deep divisions, Hull, ever the eternal optimist, sees hope.
He says he believes in the human spirit. He says he 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 does not take for granted. He has pulmonary fibrosis and was recently hospitalized, recovering from pneumonia. But 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.
He’s of the opinion that people yearn to find meaning in their lives. Public 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.”
What a fantastic story! Thank you!
This is a wonderful story about Ron Hull, an individual who has helped countless Nebraskans learn about and tell stories that connect, enrich and restore.
Ron also builds the kind of relationships that connect us to our heritage and each other.
I appreciated reading the article on Ron Hull, and I’d like to take this opportunity of getting a message to him about a mutual friend and fellow Nebraskan who died unexpectedly in 2021, and Ron may not be aware of it, in spite of his wide of array of sources. I would direct Ron to https://www.kudoboard.com/boards/nicOATo0
Wonderful story about a positive force in Nebraska. He was an insightful leader fir public television. Thanks for sharing.
Great story, Leo, as usual.
Thank you for telling this wonderful story of an incredible man!