Fond Farewell: Hal Haskell
Friend, family man, fighter, talker, sailor, former mayor
Former Wilmington Mayor Hal Haskell died on Thursday, Jan. 16. He would have turned 99 in May. The causes of death were many, as is often the case with 98-year-olds. Enjoying one last winter break visit from his big, loud family a few weeks ago probably helped him finally let go.
Hal’s direct descendants include eight children, 19 grandchildren, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 great-grandchildren. The other half of Hal’s family-making operation was Mimi, who died in 2008. She, like Hal, was generous, energetic, and mischievous.
Hal referred to his grandchildren (and other humans waist-high or smaller) as either “the little foxes” or “the mice,” and he loved to sit on his porch with a “decaffeinated beer” and watch them play whiffle ball on the front lawn.
After Mimi died, Hal, then 86, reconnected with a childhood friend named Ruth du Pont Lord. He wooed her with persistence in the form of weekly drives to visit her in New Haven, Connecticut. And they got just short of legally married in 2009, celebrating with the handful of family members who were in town, with hot dogs at Jimmy John’s Pipin’ Hot Sandwiches.
Hal called any car that zoomed past him on a highway a “rabbit” and promptly followed it, keeping just enough of a distance that if a hungry police officer was to catch it, Hal would be able to roll past, as fast as he pleased, the road ahead likely clear of the fuzz for a good long while. Fifty to 60 years ago, Mimi gave Hal a steel snail, and he proudly wore it on the hood of each Chevy Corsica or Malibu that he subsequently drove.
When the occasional cop would nab Hal for speeding, Hal had a knack for talking his way out of trouble. He would buckle his rarely worn seat belt before the officer arrived at his window and put his retail politics skills to work, often finding an excuse to mention his service in World War II. Hal would have you believe his rate of escape from the authorities was just shy of 100%.
A sophomore at Princeton University when he enlisted, Hal spent the war on three boats. The first was a lightly armed sailboat off the mid-Atlantic coast listening for German submarines at night. The second, which Hal didn’t like to talk about much, was an old trawler doing barnacle scraping and other maintenance in the Chesapeake Bay. This assignment may have been a punishment. No one ever learned what he did to deserve it. And the third boat was an enormous LST – a Landing Ship, Tank – that ferried soldiers andvehicles between islands in the Pacific.
Hal loved the water. He raced sailboats. He fished. And, on summer evenings, he swam naked in his pool on Hill Girt Farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
Hal loved bacon, root beer, Klondike bars, and iceberg lettuce salad, preferably tossed with fresh tomatoes from the farm, olives with pimento pepper stuffing, and Newman’s Own oil and vinegar dressing. After a swim and a quick dinner, he would often spend the first inning or two of a televised Phillies game kicked back and slowly working, tooth by tooth, with a long-handled, rubber-tipped dentist’s tool.
Physical health and endurance were important to Hal. When he was in his 70s, and his knees couldn’t handle jogging anymore, he became a seven-day-a-week regular at the Central YMCA on 11th Street in Wilmington. He was a master sleeper, napping at a moment’s notice, a skill he learned in the war. And, for decades, he tended to the shoulder injury his lawnmower gave him by doing his “exercises,” a series of swings and leans and stretches he would perform daily, in his button-up pajamas, using a bedpost as an anchor for the giant physical therapist’s rubber band he used for resistance.
Speaking of which, Hal was a proud Never Trump Republican. He valued honesty in politicians and willingness to compromise, and he often praised the people of Delaware for electing reasonable leaders from both parties. Hal was proud of Delaware’s current crop of elected officials.
Joe Biden is a more complicated case, given that Hal was a close ally of Cale Boggs, the incumbent Biden defeated to first earn his Senate seat. Over the past year, Hal came to peace with that loss, and he told his family many times that he wishes Joe well in his current campaign.
In Hal’s own political career, he was proudest of building bipartisan backing for student loan and air traffic control legislation during his one term as Delaware’s single member of the U.S. House of Representatives. His colleagues tend to be most impressed with the work he did to ease racial tension in Wilmington when he was mayor. There were riots in the city following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. The conservative, southern-style Democrats in power in Delaware called in the National Guard for protection. And it wasn’t until Hal and gubernatorial candidate Russell Peterson defeated those incumbents and took office in early 1969 that the state finally moved to end one of the longest domestic military occupations in American history.
Just as important to Hal as his public service was his advocacy for environmental stewardship and increased access to quality education. He was a compulsive picker-upper of litter, scraper of graffitied trees, and he served on the board of trustees of Chadds Ford’s Brandywine Conservancy for more than 50 years. He founded Delaware Futures in 1993 to expand access to college for Wilmington’s high school students. And the cause on which he lectured most passionately over the last two years of his life was bold investment, both public and private, in early childhood education.
Hal’s business career was colorful, shall we say. For example, he had a short stint as president, front man, and carnival barker for Abercrombie & Fitch, when it was a high-end outfitter for jet-setting big game hunters in New York City. And, a few years later, he juuuust missed out on investing in Wendy’s right beforeit blew up, allegedly, of course.
Hal was most feared by his family for his speeches at weddings and other big gatherings. He was capable of embarrassing anyone at any time and oblivious to all of it. A few of us took the opportunity to roast him back a bit at his memorial service at Christ Church in Greenville on Jan. 27. We’ll do it again when we bury his ashes next to Mimi’s this spring.
By Jake de Grazia. Jake is is Hal Haskell’s grandson. He manages software engineers and designers in Los Angeles, California.