This Oklahoma City native rose from a tumultuous youth replete with multiple home situations and moves around the country, a mother who married six times, and a brother who committed suicide, to the heights of Oklahoma political power. Once he finally experienced some stability in his youth, he cut a shining trail of accomplishment at Oklahoma City’s respected Classen High School. He won election as student class president, played on the school’s state championship basketball team, and memorized approximately 1,600 of the school’s 1,800 student names!
Hall’s handsome looks, charisma and an intellectual brilliance netted him a one-year scholarship to Harvard Law School. Nonetheless, he worked his way through college at OU, which foreshadowed his later career-long struggle to stay flush financially. He served a two-year administrative hitch in the Air Force, completed his law degree at the University of Tulsa, then went to work for the Tulsa County Attorney’s office.
The last five of his eight years there, he served as County Attorney. His office fashioned a brilliant record, successfully prosecuting 940 out of 1,000 criminal cases. Hall gained personal notoriety with his trailblazing prosecution of a nationwide fraud scheme in which public school employees fenced surplus property and embezzled the proceeds from their school districts.
Ambitious Gubernatorial Plans
That success and notoriety, coupled with his winsome ways with people of great as well as humble means, spurred him to a bold 1966 gubernatorial run at age 36. He finished a strong third in the Democratic primary. After four years of private practice, he launched an even more daring run for the office in 1970 against popular and respected Republican incumbent Dewey Bartlett, who had won that previous race. Hall parlayed an articulate and vigorous campaign into the closest gubernatorial election victory in Oklahoma history.
The new governor’s energy continued in office. He rolled out an ambitious plan to elevate public school funding, including teacher salaries, improve state highways, and upgrade the state prison system. Accomplishing all of this necessitated proposing one of the largest and most controversial state increases ever, and the first significant one since World War II.
Still flush with election victory favor, Hall won a savage political brawl when the legislature passed the tax hike. Supporters lauded it for putting “Oklahoma back on a sound financial basis at a time when the need for new state revenue had reached a crisis,” as well as fueling efforts to increase per-pupil expenditures and teacher salaries, and decrease classroom student numbers. Opponents condemned the hike for enabling continued state education inefficiencies and saddling the state with the long-term millstone of depleted private sector capital and growth. This opposition would provide a highly flammable context for the legal problems that were already afoot for Hall behind the scenes.
Hall’s expensive Freeway 77 highway bond package failed with the public and legislature, but he succeeded in championing a major increase in prison funding and a fresh set of reforms. His long, landmark battle against corruption charges posed by a wide host of local, state, and federal accusers is chronicled in OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 12. Hall avoided prosecution for most of these charges, but his felony racketeering convictions netted him 19 months in a federal prison.
Return to Oklahoma
“If he were not corrupt, he could have been one of the great governors ever, and perhaps even a candidate for President or Vice-President,” future governor Frank Keating, one of Hall’s main adversaries, recalled.
Until his 2016 death, Hall maintained his innocence of all the charges against him during the dramatic events of the 1970s. He referred to his “political show trial.” He made an uplifting return to Oklahoma for the 2007 “Inspired to Lead” celebration at the Oklahoma History Center. The program featured the state’s six living governors. Hall said that he was “very apprehensive about appearing,” but “the crowd at the celebration treated me like a rock star, the outpouring of their love humbled me.”
Keating remembered fearing that Hall might say or do something against him, perhaps as dramatic as “picking up a chair and creaming me with it.” Instead, “in typically Hall fashion, when my wife Kathy and I ran into him and his wife Jo on an elevator, he smiled, grabbed my hand, and said, ‘Wonderful to see you guys!’ He asked how my dad Tony was, and when I told him he had passed away, he said, ‘Oh no, what a jewel, what a wonderful civic leader and human being, I’m so sorry to hear that.’ Then, leaving, he warmly wished us well and said, ‘Take care!’”
Whether innocent or guilty of the crimes for which he was imprisoned, Christian convictions permeated David Hall’s speech throughout the later years of his life. He spread liberally the empowering message that, “You must forgive and get by it so your life can be full then and beyond.”
His star-crossed love for his home state shined anew when he told an Oklahoman reporter a few months before his death: “You could live in a condominium complex here (in California) and not know anybody. In Oklahoma, the neighbors would probably bring you a plate of brownies when you moved in. The friendly frontier feeling still prevails in Oklahoma and I miss that very much.”
Hall concluded his 2011 autobiography Twisted Justice with characteristic optimism, the same sort that built Oklahoma from the barren plains and hills. The reader could almost see the winning smile, full thick head of silver hair, and twinkling blue eyes, hear the reassuring voice, and feel the manly handshake:
“It’s now late at night, the house is quiet, Jo has already gone to sleep, and so I’m ready to close this book and enjoy a good night’s rest. It’s my plan for tomorrow morning, just as I’ve done for almost every day of my life, to wake up, put my feet solidly on the floor, stand up, and say to myself, “It’s going to be a good day.’”
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.