WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Rep. Ralph M. Hall, 95, died Thursday, according to the congressman's successor.
Hall was one of the last conservative Texas Democrats to switch over to the GOP and made history as the oldest member of the U.S. House.
He was a veteran of the Texas Senate, and East Texans elected him to the U.S. House in 1980 as a Democrat. He switched to the Republican party in 2004.
Hall served 17 terms in the U.S. House.
"Today the 4th District of Texas lost a great leader, statesman and friend," wrote his successor, U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, in a statement Thursday. "From his defense of our nation during WWII through his time as our Representative in Congress, Ralph Hall lived a remarkable life dedicated selflessly to serving his fellow citizens.
"Congressman Hall leaves behind a timeless legacy that will forever be remembered and appreciated by generations of Texans."
Hall spent most of his life in his childhood home of Rockwall County. He served during World War II as a Navy lieutenant and aircraft carrier pilot. He attended the University of Texas and Texas Christian University and eventually earned his bachelor's degree in law from Southern Methodist University in 1951.
Like most people in Texas politics, he was a Democrat early on. He served as a county judge from 1950-62, went to the Texas Senate in 1962 and served there for 10 years.
In 1980, East Texans elected him to Congress. Hall's district stretched from the Dallas suburbs deep into Northeast Texas — all the way to Texarkana — and was the seat once occupied by U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn. Rayburn was a close friend of Hall's mother. In the 1950s, a group of Republicans tried to recruit Hall to challenge Rayburn.
"If you do that, where are you going to get breakfast?" Hall's mother told him, according to a 2014 C-SPAN interview with the congressman. "You're not going run against Sam Rayburn."
While a member of the Democratic caucus, he voted often with Republicans. He stayed with the party long after many other high-profile Texans moved to the GOP, including John Connally and Rick Perry. In 2003, Hall voted "present" rather than support the Democrats' new leader, future Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Hall finally made the jump in 2004 amid a GOP redraw of the state congressional map, and Republicans quickly named named him to a senior position on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. He would easily coast to re-election — until 2014.
Ratcliffe defeated Hall in a 2014 Republican primary. Most of the Texas Republican delegation realized the seriousness of the Ratcliffe threat at the time and rallied behind Hall. Even so, the longtime congressman lost that race.
"When I got up here, I was a Democrat. But I was a conservative Democrat," he said during the C-SPAN interview. "And I didn't really fit. Republicans didn't really want me, and the Democrats didn't like me."
Hall left the U.S. House on a grateful note, his onetime political rival told The Texas Tribune in 2015.
"He went out of his way, I think, to tell folks up here in D.C., 'John is going to be my congressman now. I want him to do well. Treat him the way that you’ve treated me,'" Ratcliffe said of the transition.
“We have sort of code of conduct and honor in our delegation that we stick together, and Ralph’s one of our dearest members, and it’d be tragic to see him lose what could be his last election,” his colleague, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said at the time.
Hall was close to both the late President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush.
"Laura and I are deeply saddened that a good friend and a great Texan has died," the younger Bush said in a statement. "Ralph Hall epitomized decency, class, and patriotism."
Hall married Mary Ellen Murphy Hall while he was in the service in 1944. She died in 2008. They had three sons and numerous grandchildren.
Politics was the passion of Hall's life.
"I'm not a golfer. I don't hunt. I don't fish," he told C-SPAN. "I campaign."