DENTON — With the Choptank River in his backyard and his dog by his side, former Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes enjoys a low-key life after decades of public service.
Hughes, 88, resides alone in his two-story home — referred to as Hazelwood — hidden from passing cars on Pealiquor Road in Denton, Maryland. Next door and across the street, golf balls soar through the air at Caroline Country Club, where Hughes is a member.
His aging rescued yellow Labrador retriever, Miller, greets visitors with friendly barks. Miller and his master are slowing down, but eagerly meet their guests. Miller with inquisitive sniffs and Hughes with firm handshakes.
The house, which he and his late wife, Patricia Hughes (née Donoho) moved into about 15 years ago, was built in 1941 and previously owned by Mrs. Hughes’ parents.
Mrs. Hughes died in 2010 at 79 years old.
“She was quite an interesting person,” Hughes said. “She was very smart, much smarter than I.”
Hughes credits her with pushing him to attend law school, which led him to public service, at George Washington University.
“She supported me in all the political endeavors I was involved in,” he said.
Patricia gave birth to their daughters, Ann Fink, now a retired special education teacher, in 1953 and Elizabeth, now a retired lawyer, in 1956.
“We had a very, very close family and just did everyday normal things that families do,” Fink said.
Fink said the family had a pony named Butterball and that Hughes would be in the stables baling hay and cleaning stalls.
“He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. That’s what he instilled in me,” she said.
Life as a young man
Hughes grew up in Denton.
“You learn to entertain yourself,” Hughes said of small-town life. “I spent many an hour knocking fly balls to a friend of mine and him knocking them out to me.”
Hughes played baseball throughout his childhood. A baseball glove was the first birthday gift he remembers receiving.
When Hughes reached the age of 17, baseball went to the wayside when he joined the Navy Air Corps to serve in World War II.
But before he saw action, the war was over and Hughes began his academic career at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, then studied at the University of Maryland, College Park.
He pitched for Maryland’s baseball team while studying business and public administration.
The whole idea was to play professional baseball,” he said. “I was just taking whatever course I could get to get through college.”
Hughes forsook his dream of playing in the majors at about 24 years old when his career faltered and Mrs. Hughes pushed him to enroll in law school.
“My about-to-be wife was just as happy that I didn’t stay in baseball. She used to come watch the games and read a book in the stands.”
Hughes is no longer involved in politics, but maintains his presidential position with the eponymous Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, which partners farmers and environmentalists to improve Maryland’s environmental health, in Queenstown.
Hughes still makes himself available — by answering the phone at home.
“He doesn’t use email,” said Hughes’ gubernatorial campaign manager and friend Joe Coale. “I said, ‘Harry, if you can use a phone, you can use email! If you can understand the intricacies and are able to articulate the detail of the Maryland state budget, you can use email.’”
The center conveys Hughes’ dedication to protecting the environment in Maryland, something he championed during his administration.
He said saving the Chesapeake Bay is still one of the biggest issues in the state.
“I remember telling people it’s not going to happen overnight,” Hughes said of restoring the bay.
Hughes said he considers himself a “reasonable environmentalist” and says the bay, crabs, and oysters identify Maryland.
Hughes practiced law in the 1950s. When Jack Hogan left the House of Delegates, Hughes successfully ran for the open Caroline County seat in 1954. In 1958, he made a bid for state Senate in Caroline, won, and held that seat for 12 years.
When serving on the Senate began affecting his law work, he decided to forgo another term.
“Then Gov. Marvin Mandel named him secretary of transportation,” said John Frece, co-author of “My Unexpected Journey,” Hughes’ autobiography. On Jan. 4, 1971, Hughes was officially named to the position.
As the first Maryland secretary of transportation, Hughes helped bring agencies, including the Port Authority, the Motor Vehicles Association, and the State Roads Commission, together under one umbrella.
Unlike being a legislator, Hughes said, his secretarial position allowed him to see the changes his department made.
But he resigned amid a controversial contract bidding process for the first leg of the Baltimore subway.
“There were some shady deals being pushed,” Frece said. “He wouldn’t go along with it and tried, and tried, and tried to straighten it out and decided to resign rather than go along with it.”
In May 1977, Hughes quit.
“That night, my wife and a couple our friends were meeting for dinner and I said, ‘Pat I’m going to resign tomorrow.’ Just like that. And I did.”
Frece said Hughes’ resignation catapulted him to the 1978 election.
“My wife and I talked about (running for governor) a lot, I talked to several people about it. I figured if I didn’t do it I’d probably regret it for the rest of my life,” Hughes said.
During his gubernatorial primary campaign, Hughes lagged with only about 7 percent of voters saying they would cast their ballot for him.
But a week before the primary election, the Baltimore Sun featured a front-page Hughes endorsement.
“When a paper like the Sun gave an endorsement, it was generally influential,” said Frece, a former Sun reporter. “For them to say that Harry Hughes is their choice legitimized his candidacy.”
Coale recalled sitting in the Lord Baltimore Hotel with Hughes on election night, wondering what the outcome would be.
Coale began receiving phone calls from thought-to-be-lost precincts, saying Hughes was winning overwhelmingly.
“I said, ‘Harry, break out the champagne, you’re going to be the next governor,’” Coale said.
Hughes defeated acting governor Blair Lee III in what Lee’s son, Blair Lee IV, called a “shocking” upset.
The general election went smoothly and Hughes emerged victorious over Republican John Glenn Beall Jr.
Starting out with a surplus, the state was doing well early in Hughes’ first term. But the recession hit the state hard.
Hughes managed to push legislation curbing state spending as well as established a joint Maryland-Virginia veterinary school, which opened federal funds for both states.
Hughes made prison changes, established the Task Force on Violence and Extremism, and created the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence.
Task force chair Connie Beims said the group was “too far ahead” of the times in terms of protecting minority populations and the institute fizzled out after Hughes left office.
Hughes made waves in environmental policy by establishing the Critical Areas Act — which protects land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters or tidal wetlands from development for the first time. He also banned catching rockfish until the population was stable and appropriated $37 million in funding for bay-restoration projects.
“He was a shining example to me in terms of environmental policy,” former Gov. Parris Glendening said.
Hughes faced criticism for his handling of the 1985 savings and loan crisis, where unstable savings and loan associations failed due to risky investments with depositors’ money.
He was scheduled to visit Israel and Egypt on an economic development trip at the same time the situation was becoming worse. Hughes was concerned that either going or cancelling would hurt the tense atmosphere. In the end, he went on the trip but cut it short to address the crisis.
Hughes said when the issue came up in the 1985 general assembly, “the damage was already done.”
“It was incredible,” he said. “I had some special sessions at the General Assembly and got some legislation passed, put up a lot of money to protect depositors.”
Hughes eventually got his constituents’ money back. The only missing money was potentially accrued interest.
But Marylanders were not happy with the way he handled a memo explaining the delicate situation regarding the banks and the depositors.
The implication was that the governor should have known that some of these S&Ls were being run by “crooks,” according to Hughes’ autobiography.
“It was a tough time for me because I was getting a lot of the blame,” he said. However, some people since then have thanked him for saving their money.
Frece said Hughes saw a moral responsibility to protect depositors who were about to lose their life savings.
“In a way it was his worst moment and his best moment,” Frece said.
“In my assessment as a Marylander, a former governor, and political science professor, Harry Hughes is one of the best governors the state has ever had,” Glendening said. “Also, unfortunately, one of the least appreciated.”
He said the savings and loan crisis clouded two great gubernatorial terms.
“Despite all that, Hughes’ legacy is as a reform governor who was as honest as the day was long,” he said. “It was eight years of honest government.”
While Maryland faced ethical and moral challenges from some individuals, Hughes was a model of integrity, Glendening said.
Frece said Hughes is a decent man who is “clear eyed.”
“Politics never drove him, he was one of those rare elected officials that had the best interest of the state and best interest of citizens at heart,” he said. “He steadily achieved good things for the state over those two terms.”
Beim said Hughes was a man of conviction before he took office.
“I’m always proud to say I was a member of the Harry Hughes team,” she said.
Fink said her father’s time in office was nothing short of hard work.
“He’s had to make some tough decisions, I think. But he got the job done,” she said.