The Socrates of Wilmington

by Simon Gonzalez
March 2017

Think of a word that means very good at a lot of things. Multitalented. Versatile. Resourceful. Exceptional. Now discard it, because it is woefully inadequate to describe Dr. Benjamin Franklin Hall (1908-1991).

He was a pastor renowned for his eloquence, a theologian admired for his knowledge, and a newspaper columnist whose first draft was a finished product that required little, if any, editing.

Hall was an administrator who helped Wilmington College transition to a university, and a learned professor who filled the biggest hall on campus with students enthralled by his lectures, delivered in the stentorian voice of a Southern gentleman.

He was friends with Harry Truman, met C.S. Lewis, and shared a stage with Winston Churchill -- and out-spoke one of history's greatest orators, if the legend is to be believed.

He was a civil rights proponent, a historian, a world traveler, a husband and a father.

It would take most people several lifetimes to accomplish all that Dr. Hall achieved in his 83 years.

Yet Michal Hall doesn't hesitate when considering his father's legacy.

"He loved to teach. That's where his heart was," says Hall, the second of B. Frank Hall's three sons. "He was a naturally good preacher, and a naturally good administrator. He did a lot of things, but he was a teacher at heart."

He instructed thousands of students as a professor and the first head of the religion and philosophy department at Wilmington College, which became University of North Carolina Wilmington.

"He taught early in the morning in the biggest lecture hall we had at the time," says Dr. Julian Keith, a former student and now chair of the department of psychology at UNCW. "It was full and students were sitting in the aisles. Some of them weren't even registered for the class. They just wanted to hear him speak."

Dr. Hall's commitment to teaching went well beyond the classroom.

He taught from the pulpits of churches in Missouri and North Carolina, including Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian in Wilmington, where he served as pastor for 28 years, and Little Chapel on the Boardwalk in Wrightsville Beach, a church he helped found and where he would fill in as interim pastor.

"He was a great pulpit preacher," says Brett Blizzard, a longtime member of the Little Chapel congregation. "He was a very learned individual. He was one of these people you always listened to. When he spoke, you were learning something."

He expounded on his views on God, ethics, society, history and really any topic that took his fancy through a Sunday column that ran from 1954-1974 in the Wilmington Star-News.

"Subject matter was always selected by Dr. Hall and the finished column turned in to the editorial department," former Star-News publisher Rye B. Page wrote in Hall's only published book, "The Word of B. Frank Hall," a collection of his newspaper columns. "The newspaper's interest was in having another viewpoint to present to our readers. The volume of 'Letters to the Editor' was respectable for a paper the size of the Sunday Star-News, but after Dr. Hall's column began on a regular basis, the volume increased considerably."

He taught as a board member and the second president of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, a position he held in 1958. Knowing history was important, he once said, so modern problems don't "scare you to death."

Through every avenue, he taught multitudes about God, about decency, about civility, about ethics.

"What Socrates was to the Athens of his day, Dr. B. Frank Hall has in many ways been to his native Wilmington," UNCW colleagues James McGowan and James Megivern wrote in the introduction to Hall's book. "His intelligence, insight, humor, imagination, creativity and deep love for the city all blend in a life of service and dedication. The articles reveal a man concerned with his fellow man, a questioner, a critic, a poet, a scholar. He challenged and encouraged his reader to face the issues of our time; he offered directions that are anchored in dialogue, reason and love. ? (He) prodded the conscience of his fellow man."

Dr. Hall was born in Wilmington on February 26, 1908, to a family with deep Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach roots.

"My great-grandfather had a house on Wrightsville Beach," says John

Hall, B. Frank Hall's oldest son. "There are four generations of us that had ties to Wrightsville Beach."

B. Frank Hall attended New Hanover High, Davidson College and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, where he earned a Doctorate of Theology.

His first pastorate was at Morehead City. From there he and his wife, Adelaide, went to Central Presbyterian Church in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton.

"We certainly were a pair of badly scared youngsters when we entered that big church for the first time as the new pastor and his wife," Adelaide, then 23, later confided to friends.

The congregation quickly realized they had made the right choice. The church was struggling with a debt of $265,000, incurred by taking on a building project just before the onset of the Great Depression. Dr. Hall turned it around, drawing the attention of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"The church has made a right-about-face and is handling its financial problem in such a way that other congregations in and out of St. Louis, harassed by hard times, are studying its methods," the newspaper reported.

He was subject of a glowing profile in the St. Louis Star-Times on May 31, 1947. He was described as a "young, dynamic and widely popular pastor who, perhaps as much as any clergyman in St. Louis, lives his Christianity. ? In the pulpit he is a forceful, eloquent and moving spirit. Out of the pulpit he is a 'regular fellow' -- good-humored, gracious, poised and completely unaffected."

It was in Missouri that Dr. Hall met Truman, "a friend who was a man before he was a President."

Dr. Hall wrote to the then-Missouri senator in January 1940 to express concerns about Japanese imperialism in China, where two of his aunts were missionaries.

"And Harry wrote me back, no official missive signed by a secretary, but a direct, concerned letter," Dr. Hall wrote in his newspaper column the week Truman died.

The two men became friends. There are stories that Truman secretly visited the Halls at their Wrightsville Beach home a time or two.

Dr. Hall and Truman were together for one of the seminal speeches in world history. It was March 5, 1946, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Truman introduced Churchill, the former British Prime Minister who was there to be awarded with an honorary doctorate.

"I saw him ? demonstrate the art of humility in a magnificent self-effacement that testified to his greatness," Dr. Hall wrote. "He was President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world. Yet he volunteered to introduce 'a far greater man' (Harry's words) at a small college in central Missouri."

That was the occasion of Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech, in which he warned of the post-World War II threat posed by the Soviet Union.

"I was near them all that day, and I think Harry Truman's vision in setting up the Iron Curtain Address in mid-America, as well as his beautiful self-effacement, stand with the great accomplishments of American diplomacy," Dr. Hall wrote.

Other tales are told of that day, among them that Truman and Hall also received honorary doctorates, and Hall was among the speakers.

"They said Dr. Hall's was the best speech, which surprised no one from around here who knew him," Keith says.

Although Dr. Hall did receive an honorary doctorate from Westminster College, there is no record that his award came that same day, or that he spoke. But as Keith said, given his reputation it would have surprised no one if his speech had been the best.

After 10 years in Missouri, the Halls returned home in 1949, when Dr. Hall became pastor of Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian.

"There were many people who were involved with Pearsall because Frank was

a master preacher," says Dr. Lee Jackson, a UNCW psychology professor whose wife, Adrian, was a family friend of the Halls -- the couple were married at Pearsall after Dr. Hall approved of her beau. "His sermons were superb in that they reached a wide audience but were based on a sophisticated scholarship. So many people were attracted to his congregation because of his preaching."

The Halls were a beach family. B. Frank's grandfather was the first to own a house at Wrightsville, and that's where he, Adelaide and the three boys went when Dr. Hall returned to the area.

"I think I was born to be a beach-comber," he once said.

Wrightsville Beach figured prominently in his sons' upbringing.

"It was a wonderful place to grow up," says Frank Hall, the youngest son who became a successful actor in New York and is now retired in Maine.

They lived in the cottage at 14 E. Oxford Street year-round until Hurricane Hazel. The home survived, but the fear of future storms prompted them to purchase a single-story brick house on Chestnut Street in Wilmington. They kept the cottage, moving there for summers.

"I have tremendous warm memories of walking up and down the beach with him and talking philosophy," Michal Hall says. "We would talk and watch the shooting stars and enjoy ourselves immensely."

Those talks led Michal to study philosophy at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. It was there he was persuaded to enter the ministry himself, even though he knew it would be difficult living up to his father's standards.

"I did not come anywhere near North Carolina for a long time," he says.

Many life lessons were taught in the cottage on E. Oxford Street.

"To know what was right, you had to study and learn to think rationally and logically, which he believed came from education, reading and studying," says John Hall, who went into business. "He was always open to learning, not being the one who knows it all. We grew up with that. Ethics was important. Whether it be race or economics or whatever, nothing makes you better than anyone else."

Race relations were vital to Dr. Hall, the native of a city with a troubled past.

"He was active in the civil rights movement back when if you didn't do what they wanted they called you a communist," John Hall says. "The black congregation did come to the church and he spoke in the northern side of town in Wilmington at a church there."

Dr. Hall was never officially the pastor at Little Chapel on the Boardwalk, but as a beach resident he was deeply involved in the church. He led a service of prayer, praise and thanksgiving to an overflow crowd when World War II ended in August 1945.

The little clapboard church on Banks Channel had been jointly operated by the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, but by 1949 it had become solely Presbyterian and was ready for a bigger building. Dr. Hall was appointed chairman of the committee tasked with finding land and constructing the new church. When the new building -- on North Lumina Avenue, around the corner from the Halls' cottage on the ocean end of Oxford Street -- was dedicated on Dec. 7, 1952, Dr. Hall preached the sermon.

Dr. Hall joined Wilmington College in 1963, helping establish the Department of Philosophy & Religion and serving as its first chair from 1963-1975. He was instrumental in helping the college gain accreditation as a university, by setting high intellectual standards and in practical ways like donating books from his personal library.

"As a teacher, his goal was to get people excited about philosophy and the life of the mind," Jackson says. "He introduced them to ideas that you don't normally encounter in an everyday experience. One of the critical parts of his legacy was opening up new vistas to students. Adelaide organized Friends of the Library and they contributed their own books. UNCW would not have been an accredited college if not for B. Frank Hall. A lot of official histories don't give him enough credit for that."

Dr. Hall recruited highly regarded faculty members like Dr. McGowan, Dr. Megivern and Dr. Gerald Shinn.

"All of them had a tremendous effect on the character of the university," Keith says. "They were almost missionaries for the intellectual world. They came to bring the life of the mind here, and they were committed to it. They could have been anywhere. They were all big-time thinkers and heavy hitters."

In an interview with the university archives in April 2004, Dr. McGowan recalled his first meeting with Dr. Hall.

"I was just convinced when I met Frank Hall I had either met the most incredible person that I would ever meet in my life or I had met the best car dealer," he said. "If you weren't there, it's just impossible to understand the energy that came up out of this man. He was incredible. I mean really, he was the best lecturer and teacher. I used to just go and sit in his classes and think, my gosh, where is he coming from? He was incredible."

His students included Wilmington historian and author Susan Taylor Block.

"He had this sonorous voice, this fabulous voice," she says. "His voice just filled the place everywhere. And he could recite so many poems and verses. He was such a gentleman."

The voice and the knowledge added to his renown as a lecturer.

"He was an orator. He would leave everybody enthralled," Keith says. "He would have these young kids on the edge of their seats wondering where he was going with the topic. He lectured without notes. He would bring in 'The Iliad,' scripture, poets, seemingly off the top of his head."

Whether from the lectern or the pulpit, speaking without notes was characteristic.

"I mentioned that to his wife at his funeral, and she said it was because he got up at 5 a.m. to prepare," Keith says.

There was more to it than that, Michal Hall shares.

"He had a photographic memory -- we would have him read something and read it back to us without looking and he would always get it," he says. "That's why he would always preach without having to look at notes. He would start quoting poets as they came to him and fit it in to what he was saying."

Keith credits Dr. Hall for inspiring him to become a professor.

"I won the first essay contest the philosophy and religion department put on back in the day," he says. "B. Frank Hall read the essay to everyone. The version he read was so much better than the one I had written. He gave me back the version of the manuscript he read. It was all marked up and improved. It was an honor, and made me feel that being engaged in the intellectual world was something I could do."

Even after officially retiring from the university and the pastorate, Dr. Hall remained active. He was still a teacher and a preacher, sharing his perspectives on the world he encountered.

"He continued to teach part-time until his 80th birthday, which we celebrated," Megivern said in a 2001 interview with the university archives. "It was declared the Frank Hall Day."

B. Frank Hall passed on in 1991, more than 25 years ago. He is gone, but his legacy lives.

"He led by example," Keith says. "You can see his influences. We are the way we are because of the influences that he had. He did it for the love of the community."

 


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