J. Tillman Hall, a USC physical education professor who founded a still-thriving Westchester folk dance troupe in 1950, and who again reached out beyond the university four decades later by establishing a program that sends retired scholars into the community to lecture, has died. He was 91.
Hall, a longtime Westchester resident, died at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood on June 6, two days after suffering the latest of several strokes, said his grandson, Brian Fisher.
Born in 1916 on a farm in Tennessee, Hall once said of his hardscrabble youth, “If you didn’t have a bunch of imaginative ideas, you’d starve to death.”
The “simple life,” as his grandson called it, led Hall to develop his athletic skills and become expert at square-dancing, which was “about the only kind of recreation we had,” Hall told The Times in 1967.
After arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1930s to attend the newly established George Pepperdine College on a basketball scholarship, Hall moved to Westchester in 1940. The dance troupe grew out of after-school square dance lessons he gave to neighborhood kids.
“I wasn’t too sure it would catch on in Southern California, but I’ve always had 135 to 150 young people in my classes,” Hall said in 1967.
By the late 1950s, the Westchester Lariats were performing on “The Lawrence Welk Show” and regularly touring the country and Europe. (One dancer on the 1959 tour was Lynette Fromme, who would become a follower of convicted murderer Charles Manson and attempt to assassinate President Ford in 1975.)
Under the leadership of Hall, and his wife of 66 years, Louise, the group expanded its repertoire to include dozens of international dances and gave more than 2,000 public performances over 25 years. Two of the nine books he wrote were about folk dance.
“He was one of those charismatic leaders who was an authority but full of fun and jokes ... and he made kids believe in themselves,” said Denise Nolan, who danced with the Lariats and became president of the group when Hall left in 1975.
The troupe remains “a wonderful anachronism,” said Karen Ricks, president of the board of the parent-run Lariats, which traveled to Hawaii last year. “It is sort of a neat little home-grown cultural activity in Los Angeles.”
After earning a master’s degree and doctorate in education from USC, Hall chaired the university’s physical education department from 1966 until he retired in the late 1980s. When USC asked him to oversee the school’s Emeriti Center in 1989, Hall said he agreed partly because, as he put it, once you do nothing it’s contagious, The Times reported in 1993.
That philosophy followed him to the center, which had served mainly as a resource for retired professors. He considered it “a shame” that former faculty members weren’t allowed to continue doing what they had once done so well, Hall said in 1993.
Within six months, he had signed up more than 125 retired professors with about 525 years of collective teaching experience. They helped him found the Emeriti College, a division of the center dedicated to teaching in the community, often at senior citizen centers.
Hall’s “real vision came from the recognition that retirees best serve themselves by serving others,” the Emeriti Center said in a statement.
Around 1989, Hall also came up with the idea for the university’s Living History Project, which preserves on video the memories of longtime USC insiders. The list of more than 45 interview subjects includes two former USC presidents, baseball coach Rod Dedeaux and Hall.
He retired from USC a second time in 1996.
Joseph Tillman Hall, nicknamed Tilly, was one of six children of Travis and Sophia Hall. He grew up on a 200-acre farm in Faxon, Tenn.
“He was really patient, calm and had a steady demeanor,” his grandson said. “You could tell he was definitely from a different time and a different place.”
Evidence of that could be seen in a list he kept of 25 principles to live by that he called his “personal guideposts.”
“Success in life,” went one axiom, “depends on what you do for others, not what you do for yourself.”
In addition to his wife and Fisher, Hall is survived by his daughters, Nancy Sweeny of Culver City and Jody Hall Esser of Los Angeles; three other grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Westwood United Methodist Church, 10497 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.
The family suggests memorial donations to the American Heart Assn., www.americanheart.org, or the Alzheimer’s Assn., www.alz.org.