Hal Alexander, Christian County’s longest-serving Public Defender, died at home on Oct. 9, 2021. At age 78, the retired attorney passed in the arms of his family and in the company of thousands of books that journeyed with him from boyhood to old age. Around the time of his last birthday on May 8, Hal had confronted an alarming death warrant: Stage 4 lung cancer with a cruel cut-off of three to six months. A stroke, undiagnosed until then, robbed his six-foot frame of mobility.
Born at St. Vincent Hospital, Hal was the son of plumbing shop owner Lorne W. Alexander and Othelle Nutt Alexander, a country school teacher (both deceased). Evoking an ocean boardwalk, a newly-built wooden ramp helped ferry Hal to medical appointments and offered a welcome mat. Invariably, visitors reprised often hilarious uncensored anecdotes from school days to courtrooms to watering holes to his home-cooked gourmet meals. Tears splashed as memories accidentally coalesced around “his quiet deeds,” often targeting people with few or even no options.
“You have always reminded me of my Dad,” a sympathetic visitor said, as Hal puffed on an unfiltered Camel cigarette during the early days of hospice care. “You are a champion for the underdog.”
His two decades (1988-2008) as a court-appointed lawyer for impoverished criminal defendants seemed an unlikely calling for a former frat boy. Especially one who drove a mile-long red Pontiac convertible to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. After two years of top grades, he quit going to class without saying goodbye, wed a drop-out, became a father and divorced. In a letter to his distraught parents, who had high hopes for their only child (an academic star in the Class of 1960 at Taylorville High School), Hal confessed: “I was 22 years old, out-of-work, out-of-school and dependent on you for money.”
A prior summer job at the hometown Breeze-Courier newspaper, where he was mentored by journalism icon James Frank Cooper, emboldened Hal to apply for work at the News-Gazette in Champaign in 1964. “I had no degree, nothing but guts,” he told his parents. Within a year, he was covering City Hall, the best beat. Next, the rival Courier in Urbana, recruited him, offering the top beat and top dollar. A short time later, a headline on the Society page announced “Courier Writers to Marry.” A second marriage to feature writer Carol Mekshes was followed by Hal’s vow to finally earn a college degree. When the U of I spurned him, he enrolled at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He made history in the history department when he was hired as a teaching assistant in his senior year. (The coveted posts were reserved for graduate students). His last academic stop was the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.
Hal’s life unspooled these past months of confinement through the lives of others:
“If you hadn’t pushed or shoved me out of Taylorville, I would be a file clerk instead of a community college graduate who worked with former U. S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.”
“As a pregnant single girl, I was afraid to ask my Dad, So I asked you to co-sign a loan for my first car and you did.”
“You tutored me in the law every Thursday afternoon while the other lawyers played golf.”
“Everyone should have an uncle who can teach them how to play poker, drink Budweiser and smoke Camel non-filter cigarettes! When you spoke with me and spent time with me, I thought. ‘This is what it must be like to have a father at home.’”
“You are the most brilliant man I have ever known. You will always have a special place in our hearts.”
“Do you remember seeing a man’s suit hanging in Hal’s office? It was from the Salvation Army thrift store and was loaned to defendants whose jeans and tank tops wouldn’t cut it in court.”
“I will miss that deep comforting voice that carried me and many struggling souls through tough times.”
In the end, Hal’s “voice of God,” as rival lawyers called it, was the last to go. He thought he was immune to lung cancer. Hadn’t x-rays and scans for pneumonia a year ago looked as if he were home free, despite a two-pack a day dependency?
The assassin inside him was unforgiving. Massacre is not too strong a word for the death of Hal Alexander. “He was always his own man … doing what he wanted,” a visitor said in search of logic.
Survivors are wife Carol; daughter Krista Bowers, grandchildren Max and Phoebe and former son-in-law Gregory Bowers, all of Los Angeles. Hal wanted to forego a funeral service. It was Hal’s wish to be cremated, with ashes deposited in a St. Louis Cardinals-theme urn. His cremains will be buried in the Alexander family plot at Oak Hill Cemetery. Sutton Memorial Home is assisting the family.
Memorials may be made to Christian County Animal Control, 300 S. Baughman Road, Taylorville, IL, 62568. An adopted feral cat named “Runt” snuggled with Hal on his deathbed.