TCU Magazine Podcast: Ron Hall
The alumnus talks about the promise he kept with his late wife and his commitment to helping homeless people.
TCU Magazine Podcast: Ron Hall
The alumnus talks about the promise he kept with his late wife and his commitment to helping homeless people.
Host James Creange ’17 talks with Ron Hall ’71 (MBA ’73) as the film he wrote and produced, Same Kind of Different as Me, hit the big screen. They discuss Hall’s involvement in Fort Worth’s Calder sculpture controversy and the way Denver Moore, a homeless man, changed his life. He also reveals what it’s like to see his life play out in a Hollywood studio and to be portrayed by actor Greg Kinnear.
Photo courtesy of Ron Hall.
Music by Mason Wagner, TCU student.
Welcome to the TCU Magazine Podcast. I’m James Creange from the TCU Class of 2017. Each podcast will feature a different alumni or person associated with TCU that I got a chance to interview. On this week’s episode, I called Ron Hall ’71 (MA ’73). Hall is a former banker and art dealer who held true to a promise he made his wife and befriended a homeless man by the name of Denver Moore. Hall and Moore told their story through a book, a movie and countless speaking engagements to help raise money for the homeless community. Today we talked about the book, the movie and Hall’s time spent as an art dealer.
[Intro music by Mason Wagner, TCU Student]
James Creange: Alright, I want to now welcome onto the podcast Ron Hall. Mr. Hall thank you for joining me on the show today.
Ron Hall: Thank you, James. It’s a pleasure to be back there in Frog country.
JC: Yes, absolutely. How closely do you keep up with everything going on at TCU?
Hall: Oh, I’m pretty involved. My son and daughter-in-law are both TCU graduates and a lot of my friends are very, very active there. Not a day goes by we’re not talking something about TCU.
JC: That’s awesome. So you have had an absolutely, very fascinating life that I’m excited for people to hear about. There’s parts of your life that maybe people don’t know quite as much about, so I’d like to get a little into those in this interview. I want to ask you first, how did being drafted into the U.S. Army effect your outlook on your life and change the way you viewed your life?
Hall: Well, the only reason we got drafted back in those days — I was drafted in 1967 — is if you were falling below a 2.0 grade point average in college. Once the grades started coming out, they looked at who they could pick out of college as good riflemen and rifle platoons. That was unfortunately my ticket to going into the U.S. Army. Maybe it was fortunate that I went into the U.S. Army because when I was drafted, I was majoring in fraternity parties and minoring in sorority girls. So it was not a recipe for success in life. The Army was a wakeup call to me that I needed to get my act together and get a little maturity. Two years in the Army was a great education. I learned what I didn’t want to do and it made me realize the importance of an education. I came back to TCU and reenrolled with the help of the GI Bill. My grade point average went from about a 1.8 to about a 4.0. Then I ended up staying and going to graduate school and getting an MBA, graduating with honors. I think I have to thank the Army for all of that. I would have never been able to achieve that had I not gone through those years of maturity in “this man’s army,” they used to call it.
JC: What would you say are some of the life lessons you learned while taking that final year and then your master’s program at TCU more seriously than your previous three years, and how do you think that set your life up for the course that it took?
Hall: For one thing, when I came out of the army I began dating Deborah Short who became my wife [Deborah Short Hall ’67]. Deborah was a very serious student and a scholar. She was on an academic scholarship at TCU and I was always on academic probation. I just say she inspired me. I didn’t want her to be married to some dummy. I wanted her to be proud of me as well. I didn’t want to be a non-college graduate marrying someone who was a college graduate — that would be unequally yoked, and that’s not a good thing to be.
I went back, took it very seriously and got interested in a lot things. I got to be really good friends with the professors back then. They encourage me. Coming back out of the Army, I was a private making $50 a month. I aspired to make a lot more than that. The professors took a great interest in me because I was a good student by that time and really wanting to learn. I was able to become friends with them and they encouraged me to work hard. They even got me a job, my first job, when I was graduating the first time — one of the professors there was Jalen Johnson and he encouraged me to go down to the First National Bank for an interview. When I went down there, come to find out, I had already been hired and didn’t know it. They said, ‘You need to hire this young man.’ I got down there and they said, ‘Where would you like to start and which department?”
JC: That’s great. I know you obviously took that job at First National Bank and you were on a pretty fast track in banking, but you said before that your real passion in life is art dealing and you started art dealing full time, is that right?
Hall: I did, yes. The first week I was actually at the bank, they sent me to Houston, Texas, to bid on some Municipal Bonds there and I had a couple hours to spend. Instead of going to a bar like I normally would have in my previous college experience when I had a few hours off, I decided to go to an art museum instead. I went in and spent two hours in the Houston Art Museum and it was life changing to me. I had never been to an art gallery or an art museum before. I had no idea about it. I had no idea about art or what it was even about. I had avoided any courses in school about art or literature, or anything else; I was just thinking about being a businessman. That two hours in the museum flipped my switch. I thought, ‘Wow, I love this art. I wonder how I could ever own anything like this.’ I went to an art gallery the next trip to Houston and ended up buying something from an art dealer and talking to him about his life. He traveled back and forth to Paris several times a year. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve never hardly been out of Texas except during the Army.’ It sounded like he had a fascinating life. I asked him, ‘How do you get a job like yours?’ He said, ‘You don’t get a job like this, you have to just do it. You have to be your own boss. You just buy and sell works of art and that’s how you work this business.’ He sold me something I couldn’t afford to pay. I came back and the bank loaned the money to cover my hot check and told me I have 90 days to pay it off or my job was at risk. I sold it on the 89th day and paid the note off and began borrowing money. I was a full-time banker during the day and an art dealer every other waking hour of the moment and on weekends. It became fascinating for me.
JC: You’ve obviously sold all kinds of paintings — do you have a favorite painter or painting style?
Hall: When I was really active in the art business of selling, I would always say my favorite painting is the next one I’m selling. That’s the classic salesman. Literally I don’t know. There are so many things I love. I love the impressionists. I love modern masters. I love contemporary art. I like most of the big-names that you walk into the museums and see, whether it’s the Modern Art Museum, or the Amon Carter, or the Kimbell. I love all these paintings you see hanging in the museums. I have a broad base of interests. The litmus test is: If you could go in there and pick out one painting that you could keep the rest of your life and live with, you couldn’t sell it, you couldn’t profit with it, you just had to love it. Pick out a painting and a sculpture? That would be hard to do. I would probably pick out a great maybe Gauguin painting or great Matisse painting or maybe a great Picasso from the ’30s. I think my favorite sculpture would be Giacometti, one of the standing figures Giacometti did. I also love Alexander Calder mobiles and things like that. I don’t believe there’s any one artist I could ever say is my favorite.
JC: Can you tell me about the Calder Eagle? I think that’s a fascinating story.
Hall: Well, is a fascinating story. I’m sorry that it didn’t stay in Fort Worth because Fort Worth had the opportunity to buy it. I received a call from a Canadian company that had bought the Fort Worth National Bank out of bankruptcy (back then it was called Texas American Bank). They had bought the building, the land and the building. Since the Calder was embedded in the cement on the sidewalk, that was part of their acquisition. They told me they wanted to sell that Calder to remodel the building. It was in bad state and had to be updated for fire code. They were having to spend something like $5 million just to update the fire alarm system. They wanted to sell the Calder. I said I don’t think it’s a good idea to sell the Calder because I think the people of Fort Worth think it belongs to them. He said, ‘What’s the Calder worth?’ I said, ‘It’s worth about $3-3.5 million,’ (at the time) and he said, ‘I tell you what, let’s just be a really good neighbor and partner with Fort Worth, Texas, (because this was a Canadian company). Just let anyone in Fort Worth know that they can buy it for $1 million and it will stay in Fort Worth forever. Give them 90 days to do that.’
I began trying to sell it to some people in Fort Worth. I offered it to the museums. No one was interested. I offered it to private collectors. Only one person responded and said, ‘I will pay for half of it if you can find a matching donor for the other half and we will leave it in Fort Worth.’ The time had run out by then and I didn’t find the other half million.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote an article telling the city that I was trying to sell the sculpture. What I was trying to do was to save the sculpture for Fort Worth. By then I was in living in Dallas and they said, ‘Stay out of our town. We don’t need you over here trying to sell our art.’ I wrote back a letter to the editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I said, ‘You guys don’t understand. This is not in friendly hands. This belongs to a Canadian company who doesn’t really care where it lands. They only care about the money. They are being very kind to allow you to buy this for $1 million and leave it in Fort Worth. So somebody needs to step up and do that.’ And I said, ‘Or else a year from now you will probably see this in front of a Bank of China in Shanghai. It is that valuable and somebody is going to want it.’ They just dismissed it. Someone said I was spotted walking in Sundance Square and Butch Cassidy shot me down and I would never be coming back to Fort Worth, or something like that. They were making a joke of it.
About six months later, the Canadian company called me back and said, ‘OK, Fort Worth had their chance. Now we are going to sell it. You sell it to the first person who will pay the $3.5 million.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ They said, ‘You have 30 days to sell it or we will put it at auction.’ I made one phone call and sold it to some people in New York who were hold it as an investment. We formed a company, I was a partner in it, called Phoenix. It was going to the flight of the eagle. We swooped it out of there at midnight one night and all the sudden people were complaining: ‘What happened?’ You had your chance and you didn’t buy it. They didn’t realize it. Today that Calder sculpture would probably be worth $75 million, maybe more.
JC: That’s crazy. Let’s go ahead and change the subject and talk about your book, The Same Kind of Different as Me, that’s now a film. We’ll talk about the film in a little bit, but starting with the book. Can you tell me about a promise you made to your late wife Deborah many years ago that started this whole thing?
Hall: What started the whole thing was maybe after she her forgiveness to me, I promised I would do anything she asked me the rest of our lives together. Ten years later she asked me to be friends with a homeless man. That was really what started it. Then on her deathbed, her final wish for me, or her instructions to me were: ‘Please do not give up on Denver. God is going to bless your friendship in a way you can never imagine.’ That was how that started. After she died, I invited Denver to move in with me. He lived with me for maybe the next 10 years. It was Denver’s idea to write the book. We buried Debbie out at our ranch, called Rocky Top Ranch, on the Brazos River. We were there building a proper wall around the cemetery (it had not been a cemetery before — she selected the site, like you see in the movie. She saw one of the most beautiful sites on the ranch and said, ‘This is where I want to be buried.’) and Denver started laughing. I said, ‘What’s so dang funny, Denver?’ He said, ‘Mr. Ron, there ain’t nobody ever going to believe our story. We’ve got to write us a book.’ I said, ‘What’s this we, ke-mo sah-bee? You don’t read. You don’t write. So who is going to write this book?’ I said, ‘I don’t read write either. I got through TCU by using Cliff Notes and fraternity papers. I don’t know how to write anything original.’ For the next three and a half years, we sat at the breakfast table and we wrote us a book. Him, never knowing how to read and write, didn’t write a word, but he certainly told me his story and I wrote it down, and of course wrote mine down. When we got through with them, nobody seemed to be interested in an old art dealer and an ex-con who are best friends. It didn’t really resonate with publishers or agents. So I actually self-published the book in the beginning, and one of those self-published books got in the hands of a major publishing house who then republished it under their brand.
JC: So it’s one thing one thing for your wife to say I want you to befriend this man Denver Moore. But it’s another thing for you to then have that connection — it’s not a connection that can be forced — with this guy. How long did it take into your relationship with him for it to really take off and what were some of your first impressions of him?
Hall: Well my first impression of him was that he was crazy and he was going to kill me. I actually had convinced myself that this was my just punishment for my infidelity: to be killed by the man of her dreams. This is what was playing through my mind. He was a very aggressive, crazy person who wanted no friends. He was not receptive to even kind words or anything. He was just an angry, psychologically damaged, and emotionally damaged person. It was a great experiment in life. You could see how kindness changed him over time, and how Debbie’s love — he called Debbie his stubborn angel — the fact that she never gave up on him. It just broke through all those barriers and layers of protection he had built around his heart over many years. As that began to melt away, and the fear I had for him melted away, I began to soak in his wisdom. He became my professor. I was a very eager student to learn. I spent, by that time, probably more than 30 years as an art dealer; my mind had all been on art for years. I loved what I did. Art was the only thing that I thought about. He flipped my switch and made me think less about art and more about humanity.
JC: Was it ever draining for you to have this kind of sudden fame — of you self-publish the book, a publisher picks it up, it gets bigger, you’re doing all these speaking engagements, you have high expectations of raising charitable money. Was that ever a drain on you because it wasn’t what you’d been doing your whole life?
Hall: No, it really wasn’t. It was exciting. I began being an art dealer in 1971, when I first got out of TCU and started at the bank. I’d been doing that a long time. It was invigorating to reinvent myself into something else that I became passionate about. Raising money for the homeless became something I was very good at and something I was passionate about. I read a book called Half Pike where it encourages people to begin moving from success to significance. I felt like it was time in life to start making a move like that. I felt greatly rewarded in what I was doing. I loved hanging out with homeless people. I’d hung out with beautiful people all my life who had mansions, art collections, museums and all these things, but they were not necessarily all real people. When you start hanging out with homeless people, you get the real deal. It was just fascinating to me. I didn’t realize that all of a sudden we were making a difference, that Debbie and I were making a difference in lives. We were connecting with people and being able to help them and encourage them. It was energizing. I’ve never looked back. I don’t have any regrets of giving up a very successful business and spending the last many years as a homeless advocate.
JC: I mentioned before that the book was turned into a Hollywood production movie. You became a producer for the movie. I know that you went through a lot of struggles to get this movie made, in the same ways that you did with your book. How frustrating was that process for you and can you tell me a little bit about how everything kind of came to fruition?
Hall: It’s enormously frustrating. You have people you think are good partners that end up not being good partners. People who want to tell your story in a way other than it happened. I had several failed attempts of people who wanted to make my story some Hollywood fantasy story instead of a real-life story of real people on the streets and in the city of Fort Worth. That’s why I ended up writing the screenplay myself, after I was able to get back my life rights, which took me to near bankruptcy to fight legal battles with major Hollywood studios. I won back my rights and decided to write the screenplay myself and make an independent film, but to have it be the truth, which is what we ended up with. During that process of writing the screenplay and raising money, someone at Paramount heard about our project and they decided they wanted to be a part of it. They bought into my company and kind of took control of the project, but I still had creative control over the content of the film and the screenplay. It was less frustrating then. I got most of the film I wanted, I didn’t get everything what I wanted in the film. I wanted a two hour and seven-minute film and that’s what we shot from our screenplay. But Paramount, by our contract, it had to come in less than 2 hours, so we ended up with an hour and 57-minute film. I would have liked to have the extra 7 minutes. It’s frustrating working with Hollywood. It was a big change in the regime by the time our film finished. There was a lot of turn over there. The new people coming in were not interested in small films. Everyone is trying to make big films — superhero movies. The movie audience now is 15-30 year olds, they buy 75 to 90 percent of the tickets for all movies. Good old-fashioned films and true stories generally fall by the wayside.
Paramount, thinking our film would not resonate with 15-30 year olds, sat on it for a couple years. We had legal struggles and a lot of frustration trying to get it into theaters. We finally got it in theaters and they couldn’t really put a lot of money into promoting it. It has done enormously well with the audience. It consistently gets 93 to 95 audience score, with the highest rated film in theaters. I think the film will have a long life on DVD and video on demand because it’s a timeless film. It’s a great message for America. It’s a message that America really needs to see. We need a big dose of kindness. We need to be able to look at others without judging them. We need to know that it’s not the color of our skin that divides us, but the condition of our hearts. All these other messages that come through in our film. This is something that is really desperately needed in America today.
JC: I think almost everybody has a conversation at some point in their lives about who would play them on the big screen. Is it almost surreal to see your life being played out in a movie, especially one with such a spectacular cast?
Hall: Just being on set and having them call Greg Kinnear Ron Hall. ‘Where’s Ron?’ Or ‘Where’s Debbie?’ Or ‘Where’s Denver?’ You’re just sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. These people are using my name and recreating my life, my late wife’s life and my friend’s life and all this is right here before me. This is very surreal.’ I never really thought about it when I was writing the screenplay. I was shocked to see it on set and to see it on screen the first time. It was very humbling, but in a way it’s rewarding. Because I was so truthful in telling the story, The Same Kind of Different as Me, I don’t like the person that I was, but I like the ending of the movie on who I became after Debbie and Denver got a hold of me.
JC: I’m glad you said that because it transitions well. We’ve talked about the person you were, and so let’s conclude this interview by talking about the person you are now and what’s in the future and what you’re going to become. What are you working on now? I know what I called you were working on a book — are you working on one book, a few books? What’s going on in Ron Hall’s life today?
Hall: Well I’ve got a lot of things I’m working on. First of all, we have a foundation called The Same Kind of Different as Me Charitable Foundation which we are raising money for. We desire to be the 911 call fulfillment center for smaller homeless communities across America, or even to help individual people. Right now, I’m trying to help a woman who has been living in her car near our home in Dallas for the last year. We just met this week and I’m trying to help her get in a place. We want to be able to meet the needs that are not being met through the big homeless shelters a lot of people don’t get into. That’s one of the top priorities for us right now.
Creatively, I just finished a new book. I turned it over to the publisher; it comes out in February of 2018. It’s called Working Our Way Home. That’s the story of the ten years that Denver and I live together after Debbie died. It’s actually the 12 years between Debbie’s death and Denver’s death when he and I traveled all across America. We did probably close to 500 events together during those 11 years, 11 and a half years, actually, between the two deaths. I called it Working Our Way Home. It was a great book I enjoyed writing. I got to spend several months thinking about my friend Denver who passed five years ago in 2012. I was beginning to think I was forgetting so many of his stories. When my wife Beth encouraged me to sit down and start writing, all the sudden, it became alive again. I remembered almost day-by-day 10 years living under the same roof and just all the conversations and words. It was so enjoyable getting to spend that time back with my friend again. I would talk to him almost every day. He was up in heaven and I didn’t hear him answer me, but I could sure remember his voice so well. I would like back at some of the TV shows we were on, some of the speeches we gave, just to hear him and see him. It was a really emotional time for me to be able to write that story. I’m really proud of that book. I hope it does well. It’s funny because our book Same Kind of Different as Me was a word-of-mouth bestseller. It took two and a half years for it to get on the New York Times bestselling list.
Last night when I was speaking at the Barbara Bush literacy event here in Dallas at the Meyerson Symphony Center, they introduced me and made the announcement that the book was now the New York Times number one best-selling non-fiction book. That’s 11 and a half years after it came out. Now the number one best-selling book of the New York Times on the nonfiction list. It was amazing and to hear Barbara Bush introduce me. President George W. Bush was there that night, too, presenting his new book, Portraits of Courage. [Barbara] said, ‘I’m so excited tonight for this special guest.’ Of course everyone was thinking that she was going to say George W. Bush, her son, and he was the special guest last night. Then she went on to say, ‘And it’s not who you think I’m going to say. I am so excited about Ron Hall being here and sharing Same Kind of Different as Me, a book that continues to inspire me. The movie is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and I encourage everybody, everybody, in America to see this movie.’ You can only imagine, that was a great evening to be there. She was really a catalyst for us, for the success of our first book, because she got behind it after it had been out a couple years. She invited us to be a part of her foundation for family literacy. Denver and I spoke twice at fundraisers. That publicity helped launch us to the first time we were on the New York Times bestselling list and we stayed on that list for three and a half years. Now a revival, for the last month, we’ve been back on the list starting at number six, then number two and number two again. This week we are number one, so that’s very rewarding. In my first book, Same Kind of Different as Me, I wrote very harshly about my father because I didn’t really know my father that well. We’ve had a very bad relationship. Right after the book came out, Denver and I started visiting with my father. He was very angry about what I wrote about him. At 89-years old, we sat down and Denver told me, ‘Mr. Ron, sometimes you just got to bless the hell out of people and your daddy has a lot of hell in him. We just need to bless your daddy until all the hell is gone.’ So we just started being kind and blessing my father. It became a very beautiful friendship. He and Denver became great friends. He and I became great friends. He finally opened up at 90 years why he started drinking when he came back from the war. He had never told anybody this, but he had been a rifleman in a rifle platoon. They would take him back to the Philippine Islands back when the Japanese had conquered the Philippines. As American soldiers, their job was to kill every Japanese soldier on the island. He said he killed many people and he could never get over that, could never live with himself for having done that. That’s why he began drinking. I said, ‘Dad, you never told me this.’ He said, ‘Son, you never asked.’ He wasn’t really ready to talk about it until he was 90-years old. Those last two years of his life was a very beautiful time. So I’ve written a new book about him that I called Same Kind of Sorry as Me where I detail all of that father-son relationship at the very end when we came back together. It’s a great, great story, too.
JC: Thank you so much for sharing all of that with me and I’m looking forward to reading those books. Thank you also for sharing your time to sit down on one of our first few podcast with TCU Magazine. Thank you for the inspiration you’ve been to a lot of people.
Hall: Alright, James. Thank you for calling and Go Frogs!
JC: Thanks again to Ron Hall for coming onto the podcast. You can check out the feature story we did on Hall and many other great stories at magazine.tcu.edu. You can also follow us on Twitter @tcumagazine and Facebook: TheTCUMagazine. Leave a comment on this podcast to let us know what you liked and who you might want to see interviewed next time. Thanks for listening.
[Outro Music by Mason Wagner, TCU Student]
TCU Magazine Podcast is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. Please listen to the audio that includes emotion and inflection not emphasized on the page. This transcript was generated using a combination of speech recognition software and a human transcriber, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.