HENDERSON — Bill Hale’s life was going along just fine in 1996 when something unexpected rolled up while he was working on a fence beside the road.

A descendant of settlers who arrived in Rusk County in 1856, the son of Louis and Jeanne had returned home in 1980 after working on ranches in Northeast Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma for Premier Beef Cattle Co.

Home again, the Kilgore High School and Texas A&M University alum was working the 200-plus acre Texas Century Ranch in partnership with his father. He was raising a son and daughter with his wife, Rebecca.

In 1996, though, his fence-building and life as a rancher were interrupted, Hale recalled last week after he and the rest of the Rusk County Commissioners Court adjourned a regular meeting.

That day in ‘96, a friend of his dad’s, then-Commissioner Talmadge Shoultz Mercer, pulled off the road to chat. They swapped some small talk before Hale asked if the commissioner had a deeper reason for pulling over.

“He said ‘Yeah, I did. I want to talk to you about running for county commissioner.’ I said, ‘What?’ “ Hale said. “So, then, I talked to a lot of friends in Kilgore and found out I had a lot of support.”

Six terms later

He ran for the Pct. 1 post and won the job. After contests in the Republican primary and general election that year, Hale never faced another opponent.

He’ll retire at the end of his sixth term, which runs through 2020.

“I was the first Republican elected to the Commissioners Court since Reconstruction,” Hale said.

By the time the next Pct. 1 commissioner is sworn in — Hale said two “good friends of mine” and his son, Will, are lining up for the 2020 race — he will have served two dozen years in a position he’d never pondered until the previous six-term commissioner for northern Rusk County pulled off the road to chat.

“Probably one of the highlights would be meeting so many people, not only in my precinct but all over the county, Rusk County, as well as our county officials and officials from all over the state of Texas,” he said.”They’re all good people.”

Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Helton said Hale has been “an inspiration” to his 19-year law enforcement career in Rusk County.

“I always looked up to Commissioner Hale,” Helton said. “If Commissioner Hale tells you something, you can take it to the bank. I hate to see him leaving; it’s a good thing I’ve got his phone number in my speed-dial.”

Helton’s boss, Sheriff Jeff Price, had not heard Helton’s words when he said much the same thing about the commissioner.

“I’m really going to miss Bill, because he’s been the one with the most experience that the others looked to for guidance,” the sheriff said. “From all the other sheriffs that I’ve talked to from all around the state, I hear horror stories of the sheriffs and commissioners having battles and all-out wars. And I’ll be scratching my head, going, ‘What are y’all talking about?’ ”

Hale says that’s how it’s supposed to be.

“We are a courthouse family,” he said. “That’s what I tell new commissioners coming in.”

Other highlights

Hale has rebuilt every bridge in his precinct but one, and that project is scheduled for summer 2020.

“I’ve got a very, very good crew,” he said. “And they make me look good out in the precinct. They do good work. We respond very quickly to all the calls we get.”

Rusk County absorbed a closed grocery store across West Charlevoix Street from the courthouse about two decades ago, converting it into a new sheriff’s office, jail and courtroom.

“One of my main things I worked to get accomplished is to get a courtroom in that jail, to quit moving inmates across the street (to the courthouse),” Hale said.

The Commissioners Court also ordered the terminal at the Rusk County Airport rebuilt during Hale’s tenure. The airport also is responsible for financing the rebuilding of the Rusk County Youth Exposition Center, which is on the same property.

A tornado tore up the expo center, on Memorial Day in 2015, but the court rebuilt it bigger and better — without spending tax money, thanks to insurance and mineral royalties from drilling at the airport.

“We totally rebuilt that expo center without it costing taxpayers anything,” he said, explaining the use of county royalties was allowed because the two facilities are on the same piece of land.

The project enlarged the Tommy McDaniel Exhibit Hall and added an open-air pavilion between the exhibit hall and the Phillip Davis Memorial Arena.

Part of the project included placement of a sliding door so students can bring bulky shop projects straight through the hall without making a sharp turn that Hale always feared would make heavy items spill onto unsuspecting spectators.

“That just looked like a death trap to me,” he said. “It’s a lot less dangerous.”

Hale has other improvements in mind.

Work still to do

“I want to put some new LED lighting in the arena before I leave,” he said, later pointing east beyond the expo center to a pasture leading to the horse barn. “We’re going to build another arena by the horse barn. There’s so much potential out here. It’s a great facility for the youth in our county. We’re very proud of it. Rusk County loves their youth.”

If Hale sees only blood kin after he leaves elected office, he’ll never be lonely when he leaves his courthouse family.

The family land he ranches also is home to his sister, Martha Deen, and big brother Louis Jr. and his wife, Nancy, and his little brother, Howell and his wife, Amie.

“They all live on the original property that has been in my family since 1856,” he said. “It was part of the original Texas Land Grant.”

His daughter, Amy Lattice and her husband, Jeff, are nearby with grandchildren Dylan and Luke. So are Will Hale and his wife, Ginger, raising grandson Kolton. Nephew Justin Deen helps Uncle Bill on the ranch.

“But Rebecca helps me the most,” he said of his wife. “She helps me every day. I’m going to start ranching at a little more leisurely pace. Because, now I have to crowd that into two-and-a-half days a week, talking a half day for church on Sunday.”

So, in a way, come Jan. 1, 2021, Hale’s life will bring him right back to fence-mending. He’ll likely still be pondering whether his dad had nudged Commissioner Mercer to put the political bug in his son’s head.

“I don’t know that to be fact,” he said. “But, I just guess he did. And I wish I knew that before he died so I could’ve thanked him.”