by Elliott Stonecipher
Dr. William E. Hull – “Bill,” as he asked me to call him – passed away this week. Many Shreveporters are included among those with whom he worked, and to whom he ministered. Too few Shreveporters, though, understand what he offered our city. Twenty-six years old when I met him, I perhaps particularly understand, and for the decades since have never forgotten his remarkable talents and gifts.
When Dr. Hull came to Shreveport in 1975, our city was, as he would explain the following year in an important and courageous sermon, “in crisis.” In the second year of his service as head pastor of Shreveport’s First Baptist Church, the city’s most powerful ever public official, Public Safety Commissioner George D’Artois, dragged the citizenry through the deep ditch of a corruption scandal which forever stained our city. D’Artois would, in July 1976, shop for, find and rent a hitman who murdered Shreveport advertising executive Jim Leslie for his pivotal role in exposing that corruption. (See Story) Before another year had passed, D’Artois would die of natural causes, denying Shreveport any understanding, much less cleansing, of that within it which nurtured and enabled public corruption.
As was his wont, Dr. Hull spoke up, delivering on July 3, 1977 a sermon entitled, “Shreveport At The Crossroads.” Living then in Baton Rouge, I was not in the congregation to hear the sermon, but as I shared with Dr. Hull more than once, I have always wished I had been. I would have particularly noted what many who did attend have described as a remarkable silence in the huge sanctuary as the sermon was preached. Many of those to whom Dr. Hull would impersonally refer were, in fact, sitting and listening, saving their reactions for other days and times. We might well imagine how sons and daughters of Shreveport’s multi-generational leadership elite felt as they heard such remarks as these, included here verbatim:
— “Here at home, our city was tested recently in a national survey and its quality of life rated ‘substandard,’ the lowest in five categories, ranking Shreveport 70th among 83 medium-sized metropolitan areas in America. Immediately, even before the results of the study were available for careful scrutiny, our town fathers cried with appropriate indignation that we had been judged unfairly by a computer using obsolete data, and just as quickly the matter was forgotten.”
— “Brooding over all this confusion, unmentioned but not forgotten, looms the larger-than-life tragedy of George D’Artois. To be sure the picture is not all dark, but any light which we can now see must be etched with a dimension of disgrace.”
— “Most of all, we mourn the exodus of our people. A recent article in Fortune depicted a map of the Sunbelt which showed that ‘every state in the region except Louisiana gained on balance from migration during the first half of the Seventies.'”
— “Will Shreveport become a ‘tribal’ town of closed groupings based on race and class and kin?”
— “My misgivings come at the point of a classic French concept, noblesse oblige, which affirms that ‘nobility (or rank or station) imposes obligations.’ … Having paid close attention to this ‘gifted’ group for nearly two years, I am afraid that too many within its number now follow the opposite philosophy that ‘rank confers privilege.'”
— “My observation is, however, that the ‘first families’ of Shreveport are already well known and that, except for minor adjustments to accommodate a very few, such as a new commanding general at Barksdale (Air Force Base), their constituency seldom changes.”
— “Measured by depth of concern, height of vision, or breadth of involvement, both the Shreveport Ministerial Association and the Baptist Pastor-Staff Conference leave much to be desired.”
— “But we cannot build a twenty-foot wall around South Highland-Pierremont-Spring Lake and call that our city.”
The entire sermon, with Luke 19:41-42 as its Scriptural basis, was provocative, and at times, confrontational. I have heard no mention of any other such address ever delivered in Shreveport. Impressive theologian that he was, as a writer and pulpiteer, Dr. Hull was in the truth-telling business. Shreveport’s leadership had never been so directly chastised and challenged.
Now it seems, too, that Dr. Hull was a seer who had studied and quickly taken the measure of the city. As as example, the city’s population peaked at just over 205,800 in the U. S. Census conducted three years later, and remains 4,000 people “smaller” as of July 1, 2012. Between 1950 and 1970, Shreveport’s population grew over 43%, but by the time Dr. Hull spoke that Sunday in 1977, the growth story was over. Regardless, city fathers continued peddling our “Shreveport: A City on the Grow” motto long after they knew such was clearly in the rearview mirrors of those who made up the population exodus to which Dr. Hull referred.
As another example, while Shreveport’s population has not grown, its “disgraceful” corruption problem certainly has, and without official response. As I note in the attached article, Shreveport’s corruption is systemic, and, unlike in 1976, there has never again been a murder as the punctuating event which compels a response. Those responsible to address it easily ignore our most corrosive iteration of public corruption, the kind hiding in plain sight. There is no downside risk for a corrupt official, as anyone who bothers to care understands. Corruption in Shreveport is, therefore, effectively condoned, in turn attracting more and more practitioners in more and more open displays of their calling. That word, of course, is out – notably and broadly – reinforcing the city’s decline.
Dr. Hull continued his ministry in Shreveport until 1987. I was among local fortunates to whom he reached out for occasional lunches at the University Club during which he mentored, spiritually and otherwise. As I shared with him, and have shared with many through the years, I was flattered and challenged by his friendship. I long ago realized how profoundly notable it is that Shreveport, this once at least, had its very own prophet, with his heart and soul in the perfectly correct condition and place. While a city arrived at its crossroads and pondered its choices, such an extraordinary voice was weekly heard by a notably powerful group of its leaders. Many others of them, I learned, later read printed editions of his sermons. That no community response followed re-defines and validates Dr. Hull’s conclusions and warnings.
All may measure, as I have, the observations of this, one of Shreveport’s finest citizens. I – and the rest of us here, even if some may not know it – miss him.
Elliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest, with no compensation of any kind solicited or accepted. Appropriate credit to Mr. Stonecipher in the sharing – unedited only, please – of his work is requested and appreciated.