MISSION FIRST: A Legend In His Own Right

Dec. 9, 2013

by Mady Salvani

It was 43 years ago when a 20-year-old Vietnam veteran, Dick Hall, was looking for a fresh career start after serving his country during a time of war. A native of Highland Falls, N.Y., Hall found a job opportunity in the Army Athletic Association equipment room where he supplied essential gear for cadet-athletes who were preparing to become the United States Army's future leaders at the U.S. Military Academy.

Hall, who is set to retire from the Army Athletic Association this fall, loved his job from the start and turned the opportunity into a satisfying career. He began on Nov. 30, 1970, the Monday after the Army-Navy football game. His office was in Arvin Gymnasium, where Hall's personal touch, respect and pride in the cadets he served made it all worthwhile. It wasn't easy. There was gear to prepare, uniforms, helmets, and other equipment to hand out on a daily basis. Doing 500 pounds of laundry was also part of a day's work.

Today, spread sheets and scanners help alleviate a percentage of the work that keeps the staff busy outfitting 25 intercollegiate athletic teams throughout the year. But the everyday process is still the same. Army athletes pick up and return athletic gear and equipment. Clothes still need to be laundered.

Hall continues to greet cadets and visitors the same way he did on his first day on the job 43 years ago -- with a firm handshake and a genuine smile.

Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, a former football star and now the Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, described why Hall is so exceptional. "Dick is a special person," says Caslen. "He is a lifetime friend to all of us old Army football players. He was always cheerful and always optimistic. We knew Dick was there supporting Army Football, whether winning or losing, and in rain or in snow. Dick was reliable, dependable and a caring person with a huge heart!

"Even after we all graduated, Dick would keep in touch. And especially when we were deployed, we knew Dick would keep us motivated and informed of all that was going on. A lifetime friend to us old players, he epitomizes the ethic of selfless service, and duty to nation. He is a legend in his own right."

Caslen's complimentary words along with the notes that Hall has received over the years from former athletes helped make the job special in spite of the downside. At times it was a seven-day-a-week job taking away from time for his family.

"I missed a lot of time with my children when they were growing up," recalls Hall. "Over the years I invited players, who I considered my sons, over to my house for dinner, and my daughter, Kelly, would call them her uncles.

"It was a great environment for my children. My son (Kenny) and daughter are both teachers in the Highland Falls school system. Being around the athletes rubbed off on them and had a positive influence as both also coach sports in addition to teaching."

Hall's office is adorned with letters and flags from former players. There are 17 General Officers in the U.S. Army numbered among a never-ending list of Army athletes he calls his extended family. Among them are three of the highest ranking officers in the U.S. Army, including Gen. Martin Dempsey (USMA '74), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Ray Odierno (USMA '76), Army Chief of Staff; and Gen. David Rodriguez (USMA '76), Commanding General, U.S. Africa Command. Hall still remembers their cadet days at West Point. Dempsey starred in cross country and track; Odierno played baseball and football; and Rodriguez lettered in football.

Hall's easy-going manner provided a long-lasting friendship to those young men and women that played a formidable role in their maturation process as cadets, officers and leaders of our country.

In January 2007, Odierno sent Hall a flag that had flown over the Multi-National Corps Iraq Headquarters in Bagdad. His note read, "It is one of Saddam's old Palaces. It's known as Camp Victory! Thanks for all your support. You are a great friend."

The next month, Hall received a note from Maj. Gen. Fuzzy Webster (USMA `74) stating, "Thank you for your service to the Nation these many years as you helped coach, teach, train, and equip our future leaders. Just as you did with us -- Webster, Hines, Portante, Odierno, Caslen, Bogosian. On your behalf I flew this flag over our headquarters in Baghdad in 2005 ... it's an honor to know you, Dick. Thanks for all you do."

Caslen sent a flag to Hall in March 2011. "We Caslens are honored to send this to you in honor of your faithful service and unwavering support of so many West Point athletes and Lieutenants ... you are the best! Thanks for all you do, Dick. God bless."

The path that Hall chose might never have happened had his father, George, been able to convince his son to become a state trooper when he returned home after finishing his 14-month tour in Vietnam. The younger Hall served as a member of the military police, and his father felt he should continue his career in law enforcement.

"I did not know what I wanted to do, but I was not interested in becoming a state trooper," says Hall. "A friend of mine, Annie Ruscelli, heard about an opening in the equipment room. I went in two days later, applied for the job and was hired."

Hall worked for Roy Cooper for three years before taking over from him in 1973. While Hall was busy learning the everyday responsibilities involved in taking care of 800 athletes, he developed a friendship with the cadets he saw on a daily basis with his closest bonds formed with the members of the football team.

"I would see the players every day as they came up to the window in the equipment room," says Hall. "I was the same age as they were, so it was easy for me to talk to them about their classes, how practice went, what a great job they did in the game and just things in general getting to know who they were."

West Point seniors Jack Roth and John Simar, along with "Plebes" Caslen and Bobby Johnson, straight out of "Beast Barracks," were among the first football players with whom Hall developed a close friendship. That was tightened when three members of that group returned to West Point in an administrative capacity.

Simar was an assistant football coach; Caslen returned as the Commandant of Cadets and Johnson as the Deputy Admissions Officer. Johnson was a non-playing team captain his senior year (1974) for head coach Homer Smith after being diagnosed with cancer in his arm. His team-mates elected him captain, but he did not want to hold that position if he could not play.

Hall's advice was, "If all your teammates think that much of your leadership that they want you to be a captain, that is what you are going to do."

"Dick's words meant everything to me," remembers Johnson, "and helped me do the harder right than to pursue a lesser path. While in Walter Reed (Army Medical Center) for the entire summer, I had to first deal with the fact that I had cancer and could not play football again. Dick let me know that there were other ways to lead and that my responsibility was to the team and not myself. His words allowed me to be the captain of the team and show my support in everything I did. His words got me through one of the most challenging times in my life and I will forever be indebted to him."

Facility upgrade projects began in the 1980s, and sometimes with progress comes small setbacks. With the changes, Hall saw a bit of the ability to lend his personal touch impacted. It started with the opening of the Michie Stadium Annex. Holleder Center brought additional changes with the hockey and basketball teams calling the sparkling new facility "home." With the football, basketball and hockey athletes no longer reporting to Arvin Gymnasium on a daily basis for their practice clothing, Hall moved six of his staff members to work solely out of the Michie Stadium facility as Arvin Gymnasium no longer handled all of the athletic teams' needs. As the main contact for football, Hall was one of those relocated.

Though Hall was able to continue his relationship with the football team, the personal touch he established with all 25 teams was harder to maintain as fewer players came to the equipment room near Michie Stadium.

"When the Michie Stadium Annex opened, we moved several members of that staff there and kept a small group at Arvin," explains Hall. "It made sense to have two places with football, basketball and hockey drawing equipment out of the Michie Stadium Annex and Arvin Gym taking care of the Olympic sports."

With a reclassification of positions, Hall moved back to Arvin Gymnasium in 2004. He stays in touch with the football players of the `70s, `80s and `90s through e-mails, phone calls and as an honorary member of the Army Football Letterman's Club. Every year this group of former coaches, players and officer representatives get together in the summer for a weekend filled with story-telling, golf and friendship renewals.

"Last year was our 16th year holding this outing, and we had 270 players and former coaches and staff return," says Hall. "A few years ago, I was among a group of four made an honorary member of the football team. It meant a lot to me, and it is a great distinction and a humbling experience."

Those former coaches and players are just as proud to be associated with Dick Hall since this selfless Highland Falls resident is a cherished part of their history.

Tune in tomorrow for KATE, JOHN, RICK AND ANNIE HOUGHTON: The First Family Of Army Tennis.