Remembering Betty Hall

At first blush, it might be difficult for those who never met Betty Hall to understand how the woman who was once arrested for refusing police orders could be the same one a prominent social services agency leader described last week as “a giant among the moral compass-holders in the community.”

But the answer isn’t far below the surface: Hall was arrested back in 2004 not because she just felt like challenging police, nor because she had a problem with being told what to do. That arrest – and her subsequent acquittal that made national headlines – stemmed from Hall’s fervent belief in social justice, and the ability to realize that making progress sometimes means enduring a few inconveniences.

Hall, the longtime Brookline business owner and multi-term state representative whose lifelong passion was rooted in finding ways to help those less fortunate than her, died last Thursday at her daughter’s home in New York, several weeks after celebrating her 97th birthday.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to the family. Her husband, Sidney Leavitt Hall Sr., died in 1987.

In addition to her daughter, she leaves four sons, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a legion of grateful constituents whose lives she bettered through her decades in the state legislature, but chiefly as a key figure in the establishment and growth of numerous social services agencies and causes.

A public memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. on June 23 at Brookline Community Church. The family asks that donations in Hall’s memory be directed to Nashua-based agency Harbor Homes Inc. or the Lakes Region Conservation Trust in Center Harbor.

“Clearly, Betty was one of those highly compassionate people who cared for people with needs in the community,” said Peter Kelleher, president and CEO of Harbor Homes, of which Hall was a founder nearly 40 years ago.

Hall was a member of the panel that hired Kelleher in 1982, he said. “Betty was a special person … she was able to use her intellect in addition to her heart to do for others. And she would do anything to help people,” Kelleher said.

Sidney Hall Jr., one of Hall’s four sons, recalled with both fondness and pride the day his mother was arrested – by rather unconventional, fairly humorous means – as she and others gathered near Nashua Community College to protest the policies, mainly those involving the Iraq war, of then-President George W. Bush during his March 2004 visit to Nashua.

“They agreed to move once, but weren’t going to move farther back,” Sidney Hall said, referring to his mother and several other protesters, who argued against being pushed out of sight of Bush’s motorcade.

Police officers, faced with the unenviable task of arresting an 83-year-old woman in front of the press and dozens of onlookers, gently picked her up, along with her trademark 3-legged stool and her cane, and brought her to a cruiser.

What police didn’t know, Sidney Hall said, was that their “prisoner” was a state representative who just happened to be among those who had introduced legislation regarding the very topic at hand.

Hall recalled one of the officers who testified in his mother’s case calling her “one of the nicest ladies … who they didn’t want to arrest in the first place.”

Her subsequent acquittal of the misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge only increased the substantial gaggle of local, state and national media personnel seeking an interview.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner said this weekend that he is saddened by the passing of a colleague and friend “so full of energy” and “very passionate about things she believed in.”

The two met as newly-minted state representatives, Gardner said, recalling with a laugh “that bicycle” that became her standard mode of transportation when she campaigned.

“She rode that bicycle all over the place, going door to door campaigning,” Gardner said. “That’s what Betty did – she brought her campaigns directly to the people.”

An ideal example of Hall’s habit of going “directly to the people” was her occasional appearances at places people are known to frequent – the Four Hills Landfill in Nashua, for instance.

Sometimes resting on that 3-legged stool, other times walking up to residents in the process of dumping their recyclables, Hall was more than happy to share her views, hand out a pamphlet and explain why people should elect her, in this case, as state senator for District 12.

That was in 2008, and although Hall lost that election, she had plenty of causes and projects awaiting her invaluable input.

Except for a two-year gap from 2002-04, Hall was one of the two state representatives in Hillsborough County District 26 – Brookline and Mason – from 1978-2008.

She chaired both the Brookline School Board and its Board of Selectmen in an era when women were as scarce as hens’ teeth on such civic panels, while running Hall Manufacturing Co. – “Hall Tote Bags” to locals – with her husband for 36 years, then alone for 15 years after his death.

Kelleher, the leader of Harbor Homes, said the agency is better off today for having Hall on its board for some 30 years.

“She was intensely grounded in the right thing to do,” he said. “I have tremendous admiration and respect for what she accomplished in her life.”

Hall was a spry, ever-gregarious 89 when Harbor Homes named its Winter Street group residence the Betty Hall House in 2010.

At the time, she sat on the agency’s board with one of her grandsons, Ted Hall, who happened to be the chairman. The dynamic gave rise to plenty of light banter around the table over whether the chairman would recognize her as “Mrs. Hall” or “Grandma” when she asked to speak.

The last time Gardner, the secretary of state, saw Hall was last fall, he said.

“I spent an afternoon with them,” he said of Hall and family members, who had gathered at her Lake Winnipesaukee summer residence. “She was determined that we would get together again this summer.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-1256, dshalhoup or @Telegraph_DeanS.