New documentary highlights philanthropist behind lecture series, named professor

An engineering alumnus who gained international recognition for his leadership style, approach to crisis management and philanthropy is the subject of a new, hour-long Kentucky Educational Television documentary titled “John Hall: The Kentucky Commodore.”

His name is well known at Vanderbilt University School of Engineering for the John R. and Donna S. Hall Engineering Lecture Series and the John R. Hall Professor of Chemical Engineering, held by Associate Dean for Research Peter Cummings. Cummings said he’s spoken with Hall many times since taking the professorship in 2002 and, while already impressed with his storied career, was even more so after seeing the documentary.

It explains how Hall, the son of Vanderbilt engineering alum who switched to being a salesman during the Great Depression, grew up in Knoxville but turned down a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee. He instead attended arch-rival Vanderbilt, earning a chemical engineering degree and eventually becoming CEO of Kentucky-based Ashland Oil Inc.

“As a high school student, I worked reasonably hard and behaved myself, but I’d be happy if I got a B or a C-plus,” Hall says in the documentary. “Until I got into Vanderbilt — then it was a little bit different.”

Not only did Hall excel on the football field and in engineering classrooms – he earned top marks in other subjects as well, graduating magna cum laude in 1955.

“Engineers are practical problem solvers,” Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos says in the video. “That sort of training is rigorous thinking combined with problem-solving combined with (getting) creative. … All of those, you see in John.”

Hall was recruited to Ashland Oil in 1957, rising through the ranks and earning the respect and admiration of employees and outside observers alike – one biographer says he’s never seen anyone better able to gather and motivate a team. Hall also has served on numerous boards of corporations and nonprofit entities.

He became a case study at Harvard Business School for his handling of the 1988 collapse of a diesel storage tank that polluted a stretch of the Monongahela River and contaminated drinking water in three states. His swift and thorough response and candor dealing with those affected also earned him a Crisis Manager of the Year award from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh – where the crisis originated.

After his retirement from Ashland Oil in 1997, Hall remained active in the corporate world, becoming interim chair of the Bank One board and recruiting now-J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon – interviewed for the documentary – as Bank One CEO. “He’s the iron fist inside the velvet glove,” Dimon says. “He won’t be pushed around.”

Hall was chairman of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust from 1995-1999.

Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs David Williams II shared how Hall and his wife reached out with genuine concern during a health crisis. The Halls frequently attend football games together.

“Not only is he an advocate for athletics, it’s for what athletics can do in a positive sense,” Williams says. “Not only is he our No. 1 supporter, he’s also making sure that we toe the line and are accountable to what our goals and our mission should be. One thing about the Halls – it’s always about how they can help you.”


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @HeidiHallTN