Ron Hull, a former public television producer and executive for Nebraska Public Media, died April 20 in Lincoln, Neb. He was 92.
The cause of death was not disclosed, but a funeral home obituary noted that he “died peacefully.”
Hull joined Nebraska Public Media, then known as KUON-TV, as a producer and director in 1955, just one year after the station was founded. Hull later noted that back then, “television was new, it was exciting, [and] we didn’t know what we were doing half the time,” adding, “I made $4,200 a year and thought, ‘Man, look at me!’”
He briefly left in 1966 to work as a television programming advisor for the U.S. State Department during the Vietnam War and returned in 1968 to continue as a producer and director for the station. Over his first two and half decades in Nebraska, Hull went from leading swim classes produced for television to completing several marquee productions that focused on authors like Willa Cather.
In 1982, Hull left Nebraska to lead CPB’s program fund. In that role, he paved the way for the national history series American Experience. As director, Hull gave Ken Burns his first seed money to produce The Civil War and helped fund Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize.
In 1988, Hull returned to Nebraska to be associate GM and station manager on the television side. He became senior advisor for Nebraska Public Media in 1996, a position he held until his death.
Genevieve Randall, a host and producer for Nebraska Public Media, praised Hull’s collegiality.
“I can’t tell you how different it is around the office without Ron. He always had something positive to say to absolutely everyone,” she wrote in the Public Radio Program Director Association’s Facebook group. “Not only was he a TV pioneer, but he listened to our radio programming and sent emails or messages letting us know when he liked what he heard. He knew and would remember personal details about so … many … people. And his interest in stories of all kinds was genuine.”
Nebraska Public Media CEO and GM Mark Leonard remembered Hull as someone who would go the extra mile with his work and never underestimated the intelligence of the audience. He also saw Hull as someone who was fun to be around.
“The image of Ron driving into and out of our parking lot in his red Mini Cooper convertible, top down, gray hair flowing in the wind, and him peering up over the steering wheel is just a perfect image of Ron,” he said. “Staff would look for it every morning because he would precede all of us. You always knew when Ron was in the building.”
Hull was born May 30, 1930, in Rapid City, S.D. He was the adopted and only child of Darrell C. and Nettie F. Hull, according to his 2012 autobiography Backstage: Stories From My Life in Public Television, a portion of which was excerpted in Current.
Hull discovered that he was adopted while rummaging through family records when he was 15 years old. He didn’t learn the details until 2002, when he received a photocopy of his original birth certificate. His original name was Theodore Vaughn Ramsey. His birth mother’s name was Jeanne May Ramsey, and the father was listed as Paul Vaughn. The midwife was listed as Dora Du Fran, a British brothel madam based in Deadwood, S.D.
“Was my birth mother ‘one of the girls’ who worked for Dora? Or was she a young woman who came to Dora for her skills as a midwife and the anonymity that would afford? I do not know. I have been searching but have not found out,” Hull wrote in Backstage.
Hull graduated from Rapid City High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama from Dakota Wesleyan University. He acquired a master’s degree in television from Syracuse University and a doctorate in education from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
He married Naomi K. Hull in 1953 at the United Methodist Church in Highmore, S.D. His brother-in-law, Phillip Kaye, officiated. The couple moved to Lincoln, Neb., in 1955, when Ron began his broadcasting career.
In addition to his work creating American Experience, he also helped fund Nova, Reading Rainbow and programming from New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
In a statement, CPB President Pat Harrison noted that Hull supported the creation of the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, which was renamed Vision Maker Media and is based in Lincoln, Neb. The organization, which helps fund films by and about Native American and Indigenous communities, is part of public media’s National Multicultural Alliance.
Hull was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to teach international broadcasting at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1999. He is the recipient of the Sower Award from Humanities Nebraska, which honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to the public understanding of the humanities in Nebraska. He was also given the Distinguished Nebraskan Award from the Nebraska Society of Washington, D.C., and is a member of the Nebraska Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
A passion for history
Hull maintained a lifelong passion for Nebraska history and was known for casting the tie-breaking vote in 2022 to enshrine civil rights leader and Omaha native Malcolm X as the first Black person to be included in the Nebraska Hall of Fame. Hull was working with Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, to select the artist who will design his bust to display at the state capitol, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.
His interest in history often bled into his work. During Hull’s time as senior advisor for Nebraska Public Media, the station produced Ron Hull Remembers, a series presented by Hull that showcased archival footage of programs produced during his tenure. The series included segments on talk show host Dick Cavett; authors Mari Sandoz and John G. Neihardt; actors Henry Fonda, Ruby Dee and Valerie Harper; and former Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey.
On his penchant for interviews, Hull said, “People are fascinating. You’re around so many people who are smarter than you are, you learn something all the time.”
In the Nebraska Public Media video highlighting his contributions, Hull said the pubcaster’s mission never changed.
“We still represent the finest cultural, scientific, educational values. That’s what started this, what motivated us,” he said. “I think the guiding light is to always, 24 hours a day, present the highest quality we can afford or acquire or produce to give to the people. If you can inspire other people, they can accomplish anything.”
Hull is survived by three sons: Kevin (Becky) Hull of Ocala, Fla.; Brian Hull of Lincoln, Neb.; Brandon (Linda) of Denver; and daughter, Kathryn Hull of Lincoln. He was preceded in death by his wife, Naomi.
His grandchildren include Cassie Hull and Kaylie Hull of Portland, Ore.; Nora Robinson of Lubbock, Texas; Andrew Hull of Denver; Evan Hull of Chicago; Eliza Hull of Denver; and Christopher Penas-Hull and Allison Penas-Hull of Lincoln.
Memorials in lieu of flowers should be sent to Saint Paul United Methodist Church, the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society or the People’s City Mission.
Ron Hull was one of those Giants in the (public broadcasting) Earth whose influence went well beyond our industry. Thanks Current and Julian Wylie for this fascinating retrospective of an important pioneer who helped get us to where we are today.
As an undergrad I took a class from Ron in television production. He was absolutely terrific, and one of the reasons I became intrigued with public media. He was one of those people who could impact your future, even through a brief classroom timeframe such as a one semester course. It was a pleasure to see his accomplishments over time, knowing that I’d had that “brush with greatness.”