Lately, I have had an intermittent exposure to a number of nonagenarians, for whom I have engendered deep admiration — especially those who ignore the aging process and live life to the fullest with a sage view and an energized routine that reminds us that learning never stops. Unless one becomes compliant with the sedentary lifestyle.
Bill Hale, who died last week at 89, appeared likely to become one of those nonagenarians who scoffed at growing old. I expected Father Time to be kinder to him.
Although he had open heart surgery years ago, he ate healthy and exercised daily — both body and mind. His body, unfortunately, was not as strong as his curious mind, which never ceased to encroach on knowledge and was forever questioning.
A mill village alumnus, the G.I. Bill — he was a member of the Greatest Generation — educated him, first with a B.S. from Furman. Later, he earned a doctorate at Florida State.
He was primarily an educator but landed at the Georgia Center in the early ’60s to supervise conferences. He enjoyed connecting UGA faculty with conferees who came to campus for “continuing education.” Later, he ran the University’s public television station.
Hale became a gifted speaker, which offered two enduring benefits: extra compensation, which allowed for travel for him and his family, and the fulfillment of making audiences enjoy the value of listening to his musings and to become motivated to inquire and question.
Hale grew up in a Southern Baptist environment, where questioning was often considered blasphemy. He had misgivings about the traditional concepts of heaven and hell and had no reluctance to speak his mind regarding the matter.
He had a sensitive appreciation and cogent understanding of the Bible. He knew what most church going folk have missed— there were several books left out of the Bible. He spent considerable time trying to learn why.
Something that troubled him was the Book of Revelation. He concluded that John was a troubled old man when he wrote Revelation. Hale expressed disdain for the last book of the New Testament.
When Gutenberg opened the floodgates to learning in 1439 with the creating of the printing press, more than intellectuals gained opportunity to discourse in theology. Hale was intrigued by theology and gloried in bringing about dissent when two or three or more were gathered together. Never insulting, never dogmatic or over bearing, he was fulfilled when friends made themselves and others “think” and ask questions.
While so many became mentally idle in the company of pure junk that television offers, Hale was finding respite in documentaries, the theater and books — principally biography, philosophy and theology.
As a kid he camped out in the uppermost reaches of a chinaberry tree in his back yard, an on-top-of-the-world experience which made him see the world from a different perspective. He could spy on the neighbors and their gentlemanly or ungentlemanly habits, their peculiarities and daily regimen.
This led to imagination and amusement. He found humor and enlightenment in the simplest of exercises.
In his septuagenarian years, he began chronicling his life’s vignettes and stories for his children and grandchildren. His candor and his self-examination were insightful and underscored with wit and levity.
In his octogenarian years, when many of his friends were as inactive as a politician who has twice been caught stealing, Billy Hale became an author and columnist.
He wrote about everyday things, seldom taking umbrage, but always finding the sunny side, the under-the-rock stories; the things that were a staple of his youth; the sentimental and the off-beat tales. His musings were a tonic for the heart and soul. He treasured a stimulating one liner.
One book made his day, two blessed him with tidy fulfillment; the third one, regrettably, was unfinished when his generous heart played out on him last week.
Living a life with no regrets and sustaining buoyant fulfillment, telling golden stories at the end, is a fitting epitaph for a mill village kid who got to see beyond the horizon that so many of his friends saw as a barrier and never attempted to pass. Now he has crossed the horizon that mystifies us all. Unfortunately, he can’t write about it.
I hold the view, however, that if death can offer a positive experience, Bill Hale is enjoying the moment.
Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.