John R. Hall, BE’55, a champion for education and trustee emeritus whose deep devotion to Vanderbilt earned him the nickname “Kentucky Commodore,” died Nov. 25 in Lexington, Kentucky. He was 88 years old. Hall’s accomplishments at Vanderbilt began on the Commodores football team as the university’s first Academic All-American and continued throughout his lifetime, including leading the Board of Trust during the 1990s.
“John Hall left a lasting imprint on every part of Vanderbilt with his constant commitment to our mission,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “We are deeply grateful for his service, leadership and positive impact on education on our campus and throughout our region. He epitomized the Vanderbilt spirit.”
Hall, retired chairman and CEO of Ashland Inc., was born in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 30, 1932. He grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was a standout high school football player. He then enrolled at Vanderbilt on a football scholarship, serving as the team’s co-captain his senior year.
Hall also was president of the Vanderbilt Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of engineering in chemical engineering.
“John Hall was one of the best friends Vanderbilt Athletics and this university ever had,” said Candice Lee, vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletic director. “His service, loyalty and support were unmatched, dating to his days as a Commodore team captain and Academic All-American in the 1950s, his longtime service on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, his induction into the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame and beyond.
“Mr. Hall was an incredibly accomplished business leader, but he never forgot the basics of kindness, empathy and good humor. His presence in our community will be greatly missed,” Lee said.
After serving in the U.S. Army and working briefly at Esso (now ExxonMobil), he joined Ashland Inc. as a chemical engineer in 1957. He rose through the ranks and became a director of the corporation in 1968. He was elected chairman and chief executive officer of Ashland in 1981.
Under Hall’s direction, Ashland devoted its entire corporate advertising budget to the cause of education. He, along with the CEOs of Humana and UPS, co-founded the Partnership for Kentucky School Reform, which built support for the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. Hall stepped down as CEO of Ashland in 1996 and as the company’s chair the next year. He served on numerous other corporate boards, including Bank One Corp., CSX Corp., GrafTech International, United States Enrichment Corp. and Humana Inc.
Hall’s extensive service on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust began in 1987, and he led the board as chairman from 1995 to 1999. Hall was elected trustee emeritus in 2008.
Hall’s strong engagement in his alma mater included serving on the School of Engineering Committee of Visitors. “John Hall was one of the School of Engineering’s most accomplished and dedicated graduates,” said Philippe Fauchet, Bruce and Bridgitt Evans Dean of Engineering. “He devoted his time and resources to the school over many decades. His generosity, leadership and vision has benefitted us and Vanderbilt in innumerable ways. We will miss him greatly.”
One of the responsibilities of Peter Cummings, the inaugural holder of the John R. Hall Chair in Chemical Engineering, is organizing the John R. and Donna S. Hall Engineering Lecture Series. “John was a wonderful person who always showed great interest in my research in nanoscience, meeting with me many times during his visits to Vanderbilt,” said Cummings, associate dean for research and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “The Hall chair has proved to be a huge factor in my success at Vanderbilt. His passing is deeply sad, but he will live on through his many contributions to the life of Vanderbilt and many other academic institutions in the Appalachian region.”
The lecture series offers the Vanderbilt Engineering community the opportunity to hear renowned engineers from universities, agencies and industry address engineering topics of particular interest. The Hall lecture series is funded by an endowment founded by James Gray to honor Hall and his wife, Donna Stauffer Hall.
“Kentucky Commodore,” a 2017 KET documentary, paid tribute to Hall’s love for Vanderbilt and the Bluegrass State.
Hall’s survivors include his wife; his son, John L. Hall of Lexington, Kentucky; and his brother, Jim Hall, of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
A funeral service celebrating Hall’s life will be at Christ Church Cathedral, 166 Market St., Lexington, Kentucky, at 1 p.m. on Dec. 9. A reception in the Great Hall will be immediately following the service. In observance of COVID-19 safety practices, facial coverings are requested for attendance.
Memorial donations can be made to the John R. Hall Scholarship at Vanderbilt University (vanderbilt.alumniq.com/giving/to/general—click the “additional allocations” option and enter “Hall” to select), the John R. Hall Endowment for Education at KET (www.ket.org/johnhall), or to Christ Church Cathedral, Young Adult Program (www.ccclex.org).