Eula Hall, One-Woman Relief Agency in Appalachia, Dies at 93

Calling herself a “hillbilly activist,” she started a health care clinic and offered other services in chronically underserved eastern Kentucky.

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Eula Hall was a tireless health care activist — so tireless that she wasn’t about to let an arsonist slow her down.

Among many other things, Mrs. Hall operated the Mud Creek Clinic in eastern Kentucky for mountain people, many of them coal miners and members of their families. One night in 1982, someone looking for drugs set fire to the place. When her patients showed up the next morning to find that the clinic was gone, Mrs. Hall did not miss a beat. She and a doctor set up shop on a picnic table, had a phone installed on a nearby tree and kept their appointments.

Her industriousness did not end there. She ran the makeshift clinic for three days before moving it into an elementary school, which was empty for the summer. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal development agency, then agreed to put up $320,000 to build a new clinic if she could raise $80,000.

She organized charity quilt raffles, radio call-ins and potluck dinners and even staged roadblocks on the highway, where volunteers collected cash in buckets while the police looked the other way. She came up with $120,000. Her new clinic, with state-of-the-art equipment, opened in 1984. It is now called the Eula Hall Health Center.

Mrs. Hall died on May 8 at her home in Craynor, Ky. She was 93. Her son Dean Hall said the cause was congestive heart failure.

Mrs. Hall grew up in abject poverty and left school after the eighth grade — the high school was too far away for her to walk, and there were no school buses. But she was “exceptionally smart,” her son said in an interview, and she became a one-woman relief agency, transforming a chronically underserved portion of Appalachia through her clinic, which provided much more than health care.

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A young Eula in the 1930s. She left school after the eighth grade — the high school was too far away for her to walk, and there were no school buses — but she was, her son said, “exceptionally smart.”Credit…via Hall family

Mrs. Hall, who called herself a “hillbilly activist,” was a social worker, counselor, psychiatrist and driver, picking up people who couldn’t get to the clinic on their own. Out of one room, she distributed free food at the end of each month, when people were running out of food stamps. She gave away clothes collected by churches.

Many in the community contributed to her efforts; the Hall Brothers Funeral Home (no relation), for example, gave her a Chevy Suburban so she could deliver medicine to people who lived in roadless areas. She also ran the Mud Creek Water District, which she had helped organize, piping potable water to 800 homes.

“Driven by her own experience with poverty,” Representative Hal Rogers, Republican of Kentucky, said in a statement after her death, “Eula dedicated her life to ensuring every person had access to medical care, regardless of their ability to pay for services or prescriptions.” She kept it afloat with grants, donations and, for a time, through a contract with the United Mine Workers of America.

Her work brought her national recognition, and politicians liked to align themselves with her. “She had a good working relationship with President Johnson and gave Ted Kennedy a tour,” Mr. Hall said. “She got letters from President Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Jesse Jackson visited the clinic. And she had a good working relationship with Mitch McConnell,” the senior senator from Kentucky who is the Republican leader.

A New York Times reporter, Peter T. Kilborn, visited her in 1991. “A slow-talking, soft-talking woman, she is an example of how a person with modest credentials, modest means and a homegrown vision keeps a distressed community afloat,” Mr. Kilborn wrote.

“This is black lung country,” he added. “And in this remote coal-mining community of junked terrain, junked jobs and junked bodies, Mrs. Hall is a local legend who cuts red tape and badgers bureaucrats.”

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Mrs. Hall in 2007. She learned from a young age what it meant to speak truth to power, and she would do it throughout her life.Credit…Ed Reinke/Associated Press

Eula Riley was born on Oct. 29, 1927, in Greasy Creek, a coal town in Pike County, in eastern Kentucky. Her father, Lee, was a farmer and sharecropper. Her mother, Nanny (Keene) Riley, who was Lee’s third wife, had been a schoolteacher before she gave birth to seven children and later raised multiple nieces and nephews.

One of Eula’s formative experiences occurred at the outbreak of World War II. She wanted to help the war effort, and when recruiters came to town she lied about her age, saying she was 18 when she was only 14, according to “Mud Creek Medicine” (2013), a biography of Mrs. Hall by Kiran Bhatraju, whose father was a doctor at the clinic.

She landed work in a canning and munitions factory outside Rochester, N.Y. But she found the conditions unsafe and unfair and organized some of the workers to strike, unaware of the futility of making demands on the federal government in wartime.

She was arrested and charged with instigating a riot. But the booking officer realized she was younger than she claimed and, instead of jailing her, sent her back to Kentucky. It was a trial run at speaking truth to power, which she would do throughout her life.

Back home, she found work as a domestic, cooking, cleaning and taking care of children, all without benefit of electricity, plumbing or refrigeration.

“Eula found solace in helping neighbors through tough times,” Mr. Bhatraju wrote.

She married her first husband, McKinley Hall, a miner, in 1944. He was a heavy drinker who was more interested in making moonshine than mining coal, and he abused her physically, according to her biography. Her neighbors started looking after her, and she in turn started looking after them. She gradually became the local fixer for people in trouble.

This included rushing a very pregnant neighbor to several hospitals, all of which turned the woman away because she didn’t have a primary doctor and couldn’t pay. At the last hospital, Mrs. Hall yelled at the intake nurse and threatened to call the local newspaper if the staff members wouldn’t help. They did, the birth went fine, and Mrs. Hall then took the woman’s plight to a meeting of hospital officials, where she unleashed a diatribe at them for allowing people to suffer.

She read two influential books that reinforced her courage to speak out: “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area” (1963), by Harry Caudill, and “The Other America” (1962), by Michael Harrington. Both books helped inspire President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty — and Mrs. Hall.

She participated in miners’ strikes throughout the region. She was elected president of the Kentucky Black Lung Association and organized frequent bus trips to Washington, where she lobbied for better benefits for miners and for widow’s benefits. She was often the only woman at the table.

While establishing her clinic and trying to improve life in the hollers, Mrs. Hall was continually abused by her husband, according to “Mud Creek Medicine.” Despite a restraining order against him and their eventual divorce, Mr. Bhatraju wrote, he came back one night and beat her face so badly that she had to have plastic surgery, which her neighbors helped pay for.

In addition to her son Dean, she is survived by two other sons, Troy and Danny Hall; a daughter, Nanetta Yates; eight grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren; and five great-great grandchildren. Her second husband, Oliver Bascom Hall (no relation to McKinley Hall), whom she married in 1977, died in 2000.

Mrs. Hall worked from home during the Covid pandemic, her son Dean said. Her latest plan was to start a nursing home.

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