Hull pursues personal history, 72 years ago in Rapid City

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Now that he’s retiring, Ron Hull has time to find out who he is.

Not that he or anyone else in public TV is uncertain on that point. Hull is one of the field’s most prominent advocates for good programs and a memorable character who flips his tie over his shoulder when he gets excited, which is often.

Ron HullHe worked most of 47 years at the University of Nebraska’s public TV network, leaving periodically and coming back again to its program side, which he tended while Jack McBride built the transmitters, the relationships and an array of ambitious projects based in Lincoln.

Hull is retiring from half-time work at the university this month, but his to-do list is full: dedicating a study center for Nebraska author Mari Sandoz at Chadron State College, raising a million bucks for the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commission celebration in 2004, and tracking down who his parents were.

Just three months ago, with the help of a South Dakota court, Hull obtained his birth certificate, which names Theodore Ramsey, born May 30, 1930 in Rapid City, son of Jeanne May Ramsey and Paul Vaughn. He learned he was born in a brothel on an island in Rapid City where, according to the tale he heard, straying husbands occasionally would be stranded when the river rose. And the wives would be waiting on the other shore in the morning.

Listed as midwife was the madam, Dora DuFran, a pal of Calamity Jane’s [historical website]. Hull doesn’t know whether his birth mother was visiting DuFran’s house just to give birth or she worked there. He’s searching public records for clues to these and other mysteries. The boy did not stay long on the island. DuFran found a couple to take him in.

His adoptive mother, Netti Hull, is now 99 and still reading prodigiously.

“I wish I had her genes,” says Hull. “I don’t know whose genes I’ve got.”

In her home he became a reader anyway, and after joining McBride’s tiny staff in 1955 began promoting Nebraska writers and its history in general, quoting Willa Cather freely and doing 18 hours of programming with Mari Sandoz before she died.

In 1982, when Lewis Freedman left CPB, Hull took one of several extended adventures from Nebraska, succeeding him as second director of the Television Program Fund and staying at the job in Washington, D.C., for six years. He put CPB’s money where his heart was, joining with the stations to invest millions creating the new history documentary series The American Experience.

Almost a decade later, Hull went again to Washington to scout PBS’s vast archives for programs to revive.

His time in the archives was less fruitful. Renewing broadcast rights would have been expensive, and he can’t recall that PBS adopted any of his suggestions, though in 2000 WNET did independently bring back a program at the top of his list, the sci-fi classic Lathe of Heaven [article].

He also suggested that PBS routinely air Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize every few years so that new audiences coming to PBS would learn about their country’s civil rights struggle as it recedes into history.

Just as new kids come to Barney every few years (and soon leave him behind), new adults turn 55, or whenever folks start caring about serious matters, about community and history.

Speaking about American Experience but also perhaps about certain distant and nearly lost events in Rapid City, Hull says, “The more I live, the more I realize how much people love to get in touch with their past.”