Ralph Hall, Former Congressman From Rockwall, Dies at 95

Former Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, the oldest-ever member of the U.S. House and a man who claimed to have once sold cigarettes and Coca-Cola to the bank-robbing duo of Bonnie and Clyde, has died at age 95.

The Republican and World War II pilot died at his home in Rockwall on Thursday morning, said Ed Valentine, Hall's longtime strategist. Asked about a cause of death, Valentine simply cited Hall's age, saying he hadn't been suffering from any known long term ailments.

Hall was 91 when he left the House, after being defeated in a 2014 Republican primary runoff election by John Ratcliffe. The former U.S. attorney was less than half Hall's age and well-schooled in digital and data-heavy campaigning.

Hall won the 2012 Republican primary despite a tea party challenge. But he lost in a primary upset in 2014 to John Ratcliffe.

On the night he lost, Hall said he'd wasn't quitting.

"I am not going to retire and I'm sure not going to quit. I have a job until the 31st day of December. How many other 91-year-old men can say that," Hall said.

Ratcliffe, after learning of Hall's death, released the following statement Thursday afternoon.

An avid jogger who began his days with 2-mile runs, Hall marked Memorial Day 2012 -- when he was 89 -- by skydiving to honor American service members. That Christmas he became the oldest member of Congress' lower chamber, breaking the record set by North Carolina Rep. Charles Manly Stedman, who died in office when he was 89 years, 7 months and 25 days old.

"I'm just an old guy -- lived pretty clean," Hall said just after breaking the record. "I have no ailments. I don't hurt anywhere. I may run again. I'll just wait and see."

Getting ousted by his own party in 2014 came a decade after Hall became a Republican as Texas moved farther to the right. Hall served 12 terms in Congress as a Democrat but announced in January 2004 that he'd made the switch, backed by his friend, George W. Bush, who released the following statement early Thursday afternoon:

Hall, who flew Hellcat fighters during World War II, was known in Congress for promoting NASA and energy production. Hailing from the town of Rockwall, east of Dallas, he was fond of saying that he voted with his party often but always voted with his district.

But he was probably most popular for mailing or personally dolling out pennies fitted with a special silver band bearing his name.

Only three U.S. senators were older than Hall while still serving in Congress: South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, who was 100 when he retired in 2003; Democrat Theodore Francis Green of Rhode Island, who left the Senate at age 93; and West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who died in office in 2010 at age 92.

Hall stuck to retail politicking, preferring to greet voters personally rather than organize formal campaign stops, and was ever quick with a joke or a story. That was enough to retain his House seat in 2012, when he bested tea party primary opponent Steve Clark. The telecommunications executive spent around $100,000 of his own money on the failed campaign that was also supported by grassroots groups targeting incumbents.

But in 2014, Ratcliffe painted his opponent as a do-little Washington insider. He noted that Hall had represented the district so long that he had an airport, lake and highway named after him. Ratcliffe also used targeted data to bring that message to likely Republican voters.

Hall tried to modernize with the times, joining Twitter in 2013 and marking former President Ronald Reagan's 102nd birthday with his first Tweet. But that proved no match for Ratcliffe, who ran unopposed in the deeply red district in November 2014 general election.

Ralph Moody Hall was born on May 3, 1923, in Fate, Texas. He attended Texas Christian University and the University of Texas, before earning a law degree at Southern Methodist University in 1951.

While working in a pharmacy in his hometown as a boy, Hall said then-fugitives Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker used curb-side service. Hall said they bought "two cartons of Old Golds, two Coca-Colas and all the newspapers we had."

"He was a funny looking little guy. She was acceptable looking," Hall said in 2014. "I saw them. But I don't think it's that unusual. They were a lot of places."

Like his father, Hall worked in the energy sector, helping run bulldozers during the construction of a pipeline before joining the Navy at age 19. He married Mary Ellen Murphy in November 1944, while serving in Pensacola, Florida. The couple had three sons: Hampton, Brett and Blakeley.

After World War II, Hall returned to practice law in Rockwall County, where he served as a judge from 1950 to 1962. He was elected the following year to the Texas Senate. He ran unsuccessfully in the 1972 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor and left the chamber the following January.

Hall was president and chief executive officer of Texas Aluminum Corp. and general counsel of Texas Extrusion Co. Inc. He was a counsel for the aircraft parts maker Howmet Corporation from 1970 to 1974.

Winning a U.S. House seat in 1980, Hall came to Washington just as Ronald Reagan's presidency began. Hall was among the Democratic conservatives who sided with Reagan on key budget issues, favoring efforts to reduce federal spending.

He voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement and was an original co-sponsor of bills to repeal the estate tax and the marriage tax penalty.

Hall also supported a resolution allowing America's use of force in Iraq, and voted "present" in January 2003 rather than vote for Nancy Pelosi in her bid for minority leader. Two months later, he voted for a budget that included Bush's 10-year, $726 billion tax-cut plan.

After becoming a Republican, Hall leaned heavily on Bush, a former Texas governor, and got strong White House backing in 2004's three-way GOP primary, winning 77 percent of the vote.

In 2009, he opposed the federal bailout of the financial industry and the economic stimulus package, and was a harsh critic of federal health care reform when it was debated and ultimately approved by Congress in 2010.

Two years later, Hall was appointed chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. That October, when the Environmental Protection Agency proposed easing pollution restrictions that had angered several states, Hall said EPA's revision proved its rules were not based on sound science.

"As we have seen in Texas and throughout the United States, pursing an EPA-knows-best approach to compliance will unquestionably result in increased unemployment, power plant shutdowns and more expensive, less reliable energy," he said.

After the primary defeat to Ratcliffe, Hall injured his hip in car crash, and his recovery kept him away from Washington for much of the remainder of a term that formally ended in 2015.

Hall is survived by his three children. His wife died in 2008 at age 83, after 63 years of marriage.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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