Remembering William J. Hall

Written by Steven McCabe (M.EERI,1983)

5 Honorary Hall Photo smallProfessor William J. Hall (M.EERI,1973), who was recently recognized as an EERI Honorary member at the Annual Meeting in San Diego on March 5, 2020, passed away on Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Urbana, Illinois. He was 94. His death closes a remarkable life that took him around the world as he served his country, did research, worked on engineering projects, and to Urbana where he taught the next generation of engineers. Through it all, he remained a very good man. Kind, considerate, and a born teacher. One who put his wife Elaine, his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren and his faith at the heart of his life. Bill was my doctoral advisor, my friend, and mentor over the past 40 years. Permit me a few lines of reminiscences about Bill.

William J. Hall was a long-standing member of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Illinois from 1954 to his retirement in 1993. He was the Department Head of CEE from 1984 to 1991. He advised 120 graduate students during his tenure, including 30 doctoral candidates. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and published over 200 formal publications and another 150 major consulting reports. He worked on a variety of significant projects including being a member of the design team for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, was a member of the US Defense Nuclear Safety Board, did frequent technical assignments for the Department of Defense and was the chair of the SAC Project Oversight Committee following the Northridge Earthquake. When you needed help, you called Bill.

Professor Hall was born in Berkeley, Calif., the son of Raymond and Mary (Harkey) Hall. His parents were native Kansans, both graduating from the University of Kansas in the early 1920s. His father went on to receive his M.S. and Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1928 and then embarked on a remarkable career in biology and conservation. He became a renowned mammologist who was regarded as one of the foremost researchers of his era. Bill grew up in Lafayette, Calif. with his brothers Hubbard and Benjamin. All three brothers went on to obtain their doctorates; Hub in Geology and Ben in Biophysical Chemistry. All three went on to highly successful careers. Hub as the North Sea Oil Field manager for ExxonMobil and Ben as a chaired professor of genetics at the University of Washington.

Bill was proud to be a native Californian. He and his family walked over the newly finished Golden Gate Bridge the day it was opened. He became a midshipman in the US Merchant Marine Corps and served on board ship in 1944-1945 in the Pacific Theater of World War II. In 1944, the family moved back to Lawrence, Kansas where Raymond became a faculty member and director of the respected University of Kansas Natural History Museum. Following his time in the service, Bill enrolled at the University of Kansas and graduated in 1948 with his BSCE. After a short tenure at SOHIO Pipeline Co, he entered the University of Illinois and received his MS and Ph.D. under the direction of Professor Nathan Newmark.

I first met Bill through his research while I was a practicing engineer in the power industry. Bill and Professor Newmark developed one of the early probability-based design spectra in the early 1970s for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The so-called Newmark-Hall Spectra (Regulatory Guide 1.60) was the straightforward way one could get a good estimate of spectral demands based on a ground motion’s key parameters. With the few recorded ground motions available in the early ’70s and limited computational power, how do you provide a robust methodology to estimate the spectral demands for use in nuclear facility analysis for earthquake? I thought this approach was clever. Very clever.

When I decided to pursue my doctorate, I sought out Bill Hall and called on him unannounced in his office one day in Urbana. It was immediately apparent that he was a gentleman, a very busy gentleman, but was kind and considerate. We talked about what I wanted to do; he listened and the result was that he took a chance on me. A 30-year-old practitioner who wanted to join academia. This conversation began a 40-year friendship that included milestones in both our lives. His becoming a grandfather. His becoming the department head at Illinois. My graduating and embarking on my own academic career. Then later hearing him say how proud he was of me when I became Department Chair at the University of Kansas. High praise from one whose opinion mattered. A lot.

When I think of Bill, I think of someone who always had time to visit, always seemed to be in a good mood and was in a word, centered. He knew who he was and focused on making every day count. His mantra was to keep working and writing each day. Even if it wasn’t always the best calculations or written words, to keep at it and to keep moving forward. He learned this from his very accomplished parents, his brothers, and the many faculty members he had as a student. The lessons stuck with him and he more than paid back all those who helped make him who he was. His students and colleagues all got to see Bill Hall’s genius for doing many, many tasks yet always having time to visit with a prospective student. We are his legacy and some are all the better for being fortunate enough to be one of Bill’s students. Thanks, Bill. Well done.