Excalibur Seasoning Founder Gerald “Jerry” Hall always put others first — family, employees and the community, and he always knew how to enjoy life.
“The one thing that stands out about dad was he always thought of others,” said Jay Hall, Jerry’s son and Excalibur president of research and development. “Even with the success of Excalibur, his first bonus was never to himself, he always gave the extra to his employees.
“That’s what stands out most about my dad. He was always that way until the end.”
Hall, 83, of Pekin, passed away Saturday at UnityPoint Health - Methodist in Peoria.
Working for his father in the locally owned family grocery, Jerry Hall learned how to please customers. Eventually he opened his own market in North Pekin, which he sold in 1967. A spice salesman came in one day, and Hall went to work for the spice company learning the trade. In 1986, Hall opened Excalibur Seasonings in Pekin.
Jerry Hall was not formally trained in research and development, said Jay.
“He kind of just learned it on his own,” said Jay. “It just kind of became a joke.
“I don’t remember who first pinned it, but I think Tom Hornstein ordered the placard with his name on it and ‘Mad Scientist’ under it. It was just kind of an endearing remark, because he was never formally trained as a food scientist.”
Jay said his father will be well remembered and that he “has left a great legacy to” the industry. He had three successful books published for the meat industry and taught others his craft.
“A lot of them, they wouldn’t be where they are without his going in and teaching them how to make sausages, getting them started in a different path other than just cutting meat,” said Jay.
Hornstein, Excalibur president and CEO, recalls Jerry’s business manner, giving nature, and his funny side. Hornstein came to the company 22 years ago as plant manager.
“He was a salesman since he started working when he was 9 years old cutting meat for his dad,” said Hornstein. “He was always very customer driven — very results oriented.
“He was a people person for sure. We’ve got 87 employees here today — and he loved every one of them, and every one of them loved and respected him. He would still come in a couple of hours a day, and we’d get him to stay for lunch. And he’s been retired for the last eight years or so, but he still came in every single day. It was kind of his purpose. He was very generous, not only to his family, but equally generous to his employees as well. He never did this to make money. He wanted to be successful at what he did, and he thought if that happened, the money would probably come later.”
The company still has the two 3-gallon pails that Jerry used originally to mix his spices. Hornstein learned early that Jerry had a sense of humor.
“The first week I worked here, he was making a hot sauce for Hooters Restaurant. And so he pulled me into the lab, and I was handing him ingredients,” said Hornstein. “It was a liquid sauce, and so he had me taste it, and I can’t stand hot stuff.
“Immediately my mouth went numb — absolutely immediately! He looked at me and said, ‘Do you think it could use more butter flavor?’ I’m trying to impress my brand new boss. It’s like, ‘I don’t know, I can’t feel my mouth.’”
Jerry didn’t know at that time that Hornstein didn’t like hot seasonings.
“So then later on whenever he would develop something, he would come into my office, and he’d hold out a plate that either had seasoning on it to taste or he made a sausage or had something cooked up with the product in it. I soon learned that when he said, ‘Hey Tom, will you try some of this,’ if he looked me in the eye when he said it, I knew it was OK. If he wouldn’t look me in the eye, that was the sign that it was going to be hotter than hell. Jerry had a tremendous sense of humor.”
Jerry’s daughter, Dianne Shrier, an Excalibur board member, said her father was “loved by everyone he ever met.”
“He loved being around family and friends,” she said. “He was a great guy — very competitive,” she said. “He always wanted to win (in) the sports situation. He loved telling stories and jokes. That was his big thing. He was laughing all the time. He had a big sense of humor. He was a great guy.”
One of Jerry’s favorite stories involved Shrier’s husband, Mike Shrier, a golf course and a four-legged beast.
“There was this alligator on the fairway and Mike didn’t want to hit (the ball),” she said. “(Dad) said, ‘Go ahead and hit it, you pansy.’
“He thought Mike was being a baby about it. He said, ‘That alligator isn’t going to bite you.’ Mike would do a practice swing, and the alligator would open its eyes. It was probably 6 feet from the ball. Mike thought, ‘I guess it’s not moving, so I’ll hit it.’ But he hit it, and he ran. My dad laughed about that all the time. He just loved life to the fullest. He really did. He had a really strong work ethic, and he worked hard and made his business a success. He did amazing with the family and everybody around him.”
Hall was a member of Pekin Rotary and the Salvation Army Advisory Board. He was a past Grand Marshall of the Marigold parade, and he donated spices and seasoning to the Pekin Rotary Club for its Marigold Booth. He was a long-time member of First Christian Church in Pekin, where he taught Sunday School, sang in the choir and was a former chairman of the Church Board.
Lloyd Orrick, a long-time friend of Jerry, said Jerry was “a very religious man, he was a family man, community oriented.”
“He had a chance to open a store, and he came back to his hometown to do it,” said Orrick. “He started with just him and his wife and maybe a son or two, and now I think they employ 75 people or more, all in the same community.
“It wasn’t easy. He had some tough times, but he persevered — made it happen. And just like they say, and I believe this, behind every good man is a great woman. I think (Jerry’s wife), Vinetta, had a lot to do with his success too. I think his success was because of the relationships he built. I think he knew that in order to get anything you had to have a relationship with the person and Jerry always took care of that relationship. He will be missed.”