I was glad recently to join with fellow Democrats to sing “Happy Birthday” to Tony Hall. Tony was our representative to the US House from 1978-2002. He celebrated his 82nd birthday by organizing a fund-raiser for his daughter, Jyl Hall. Tony looks good — happy and healthy. He is walking with a cane and soon will have knee replacement surgery.
Jyl Hall is campaigning to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for the Ohio Senate. The Democratic Primary is March 19. Early voting starts on February 21. Also seeking the nomination are Willis Blackshear Jr. and Jocelyn Rhynard. One reason I’m supporting Jyl is because, as a Kettering resident, I am impressed and happy with her work on the Kettering City Council. Jyl is a worker who gets things done. A second big reason I’m supporting Jyl is that Jyl, like her dad, has a real passion for helping the hungry and the poor.
At the party, I told Tony that he was a hero of mine for his daring 22 day fast in 1993 — to raise awareness about hunger — and, that I admired his efforts even more having just read his 2006 book, “Changing The Face Of Hunger.” He laughed and said amazingly that was written eighteen years ago and that recently he had re-read the book.
“Changing The Face Of Hunger” not only helped me to better appreciate Tony, but it also helped me to better understand Jyl. Tony writes in his book about how as parents, he and Janet: “From the time our children, Jyl and Matt, were old enough to understand, we made a concerted effort to expose them to the needy and to teach them the importance of helping those who are less well-off than we are.”
Tony helped establish the House Select Committee on Hunger and in 1984 traveled to Ethiopia to see first-hand the famine in that place. This “horror” changed his life. He tells, in his 2017 Tedx talk, Do the Thing in Front of You, how, in one morning, he saw twenty-five children perish. He says that, as he witnessed this suffering, he thought of his own two children, ages 8 and 4, and he became determined to increase his focus on hunger — “This was how my life in Congress was to matter.” He writes:
Some years later, I had the great privilege of meeting Mother Teresa herself. I asked her how we could hope to solve the problems of the hungry, the sick, the poor, and the oppressed since there is such an overwhelming number of them. She replied, “You do the thing that is in front of you.” …That, of course, is what Mother Teresa’s missionaries were doing in Ethiopia in 1984. That’s what I have been trying to do since I witnessed their example.
Tony’s 22 day fast happened in 1993 when the Democratic leadership, to respond to the charge of wasteful spending, decided to eliminate several committees — including the House Select Committee on Hunger, chaired by Tony. This decision left him “burning with anger.” Tony writes: “This committee was widely credited with causing or contributing to a significant number of important accomplishments including … preserving threatened U.S. nutrition programs for poor women, infants, and children, famines in various nations, hunger in poor U.S. communities … And this wonderful committee was about to be taken from me.”
Tony was increasingly upset. He writes, “Sensing my frustration and anger, my wife, Janet, said to me one evening, ‘Tony have you thought about going on a fast?’”
In 1985, Tony had organized a forty-hour fast in Dayton to raise funds for anti-hunger programs, but this 1993 fast would be much different. He writes: “It was not easy to take this step … would (my constituents) understand that I was fasting, not as a protest, but as a personal act of witness… an attempt to show others that hunger is not a problem we should ignore … Would I be committing political suicide? Would I be perceived as a flake? … My staff worried — as I did — that a fast would be seen as too radical.”
Initially, as he became weaker and weaker, Tony’s fears of being ostracized in Congress became reality. But nothing succeeds like success and, eventually, this radical action inspired over 2000 high schools and 400 colleges to sponsor short fasts in support of Tony’s cause. A big group of Hollywood celebrities, organized by Jeff Bridges and Valerie Harper, signed on to fast for one day. The World Bank made new commitments to help and Tony decided to end his fast when “The Agriculture Department announced it would conduct a national conference on domestic hunger and a series of regional conferences.”
After it was all over and Tony had regained his strength he was invited to address the Democratic caucus in the US House. He was greeted with a standing ovation and gave prepared remarks for about thirty minutes. He concluded by saying:
“As a body we lack intensity for issues like these… Now it seems we spend all our time worrying about the rich. Somewhere along the line, we lost our voice for the voiceless, the have-nots, the children, the widows, the orphans, the people that stink and don’t look so good. Let’s get it back. There is still time.”
He received another standing ovation.
Later in the book, Tony explains that “Our poor are invisible, so most Americans don’t even realize they’re there.” He writes: “Nationally, 12.7% of the population live in poverty. But the middle class and the rich seldom see the poor … even some of my best friends will say, ‘Tony , that can’t be true. We never see many poor people.’ And I’d say, ‘You don’t see them because you don’t look for them…”
Tony and Janet taught Jyl and Matt to see the hungry and the needy. In the chapter, “All In the Family,” Tony quotes, Janet: “We have only a limited time to teach our children.” Tony writes, “In Washington, where my family and I spent most of our time, we all worked in local soup kitchens. Matt and Jyl helped in our church’s project to deliver food to the poor, many of whom were refugees of civil war in El Salvador.”
Tragically, Matt, in 1996, at age fifteen, died from leukemia.
Tony writes,“Janet and I are well aware that Jyl did not have a typical childhood. She has seen great luxury and abject poverty up close. And she experienced the horrible personal tragedy of losing her brother …she has attended events at the White House and met presidents. She has traveled in two dozen countries. …She attended public schools where she was in the racial minority. She has done humanitarian work in places of extreme poverty….”
Tony at the fund raiser introduced Jyl and made a few comments. It is easy to see how pleased he is that his daughter has chosen a life of service. He recalled how Jyl at age 15 spent a month in Uganda working with orphans, many who had AIDS. Tony said that he is proud that Jyl, since childhood, has demonstrated the character, the empathy and the leadership that our democracy so badly needs.
Jyl’s received her Phd in 2019 from Asbury Seminary — fifty years after I graduated from Asbury College! — a third reason I am voting for Jyl. Her dissertation concerns poverty in the Dayton region.