“Harry Hughes Horton.” Sounds good, don’t ya think? A missed opportunity that I’ll explain in a bit.
I always had a soft spot for Harry R. Hughes, Maryland’s governor from 1979 to 1987, who died March 13 at age 92. We both grew up in rural Caroline county, born a generation apart (1926 and 1945).
Caroline, the only Eastern Shore county lacking Bay shoreline and ignored by major highways, didn’t change that much between Hughes’ time and mine. I would joke to Harry that he came from the “privileged” part, around Denton, which in our day had the county’s only stoplight. My hometown, Federalsburg, made do with a yellow flasher.
“Champion of Clean Government and a Clean Bay” — the Baltimore Sun put that perfect headline on Hughes’ obituary. A reputation for integrity did help fuel his stunning upset victory in the Democratic primary election of 1978. He had resigned as secretary of transportation a year earlier to protest unethical bidding processes.
But no one, including Harry Hughes, foresaw the environmentalism that would become a major part of his legacy, and not just while he governed. I have long privately compared him with former President Jimmy Carter — both men showing unstinting, lifelong commitments to public service.
A few years after leaving office, Hughes joined the board of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, significantly raising the profile of that “little podunk group,” to use the words of current ESLC president Rob Etgen. “[He gave us] the heft we needed,” Etgen said. Having Hughes onboard opened doors for the group, which is now a force for environmental leadership on the Shore, where it has conserved around 65,000 acres of land.
Nearly a million more acres have been protected statewide under Maryland’s Rural Legacy Program, which came to be under Hughes’ post-gubernatorial leadership. In 1995, in consultation with then Gov. Parris Glendening and farming and natural resources officials, he hatched the plan that would become Rural Legacy.
“He was always there for you, and he had a sense for those ‘pivot points,’ including his own first election, where things were on the cusp of change, where moving decisively could get big results,” Etgen said.
An example. In 1997 Hughes agreed to chair a commission taking on a political hot potato — the mysterious outbreaks of pfiesteria, a toxic algae that threatened the Bay’s seafood, tourism and recreation industries.
The upshot revealed a shocking lack of progress by Maryland agriculture in meeting its Bay cleanup obligations and led to recent legislation that will sharply limit the runoff of manure into Maryland waterways.
“My admiration for him only grew after he left office,” said John Griffin, who worked on the governor’s staff, then as deputy secretary and secretary of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
Hughes would follow the science and act on it, letting the chips fall where they might, said Griffin and others who worked with Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.
“He would listen intently to the evidence, ask questions, then say, ‘we need to do something … Maryland should lead on this,’” Griffin said.
Issue after issue: a moratorium on catching rockfish that outraged some of Hughes’ closest allies on his native Eastern Shore, but led to the species’ robust recovery; a ban on phosphate detergents that was controversial enough for the Baltimore Sun to dispatch me to interview people in laundromats in phosphate-ban states like Wisconsin.
Also taking leadership in the historic 1983 federal-state partnership that ushered in the ongoing watershedwide effort to restore the Bay’s health; and before that, deciding to clean up the Patuxent River, which Maryland environmental officials had earlier fought in court, denying emerging science that the river was in peril.
And creating the Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, a novel organization that straddles the often-difficult divide between farming and environmental protection. When he was elected back in 1978, none of the above was on anyone’s radar screen.
Though he was athletic — he is in the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame — Hughes was no typical, outdoor Eastern Shore guy. He was appreciative of his rural roots, but rather urbane and more at home in a suit than in camo.
I remember him as a young lawyer who did some work for my Dad’s poultry company, being dragged down to our cabin on the Honga River for duck hunting expeditions. I was just a kid, but it was apparent he’d rather have been anywhere else.
But as the facts came in during the 1970s and ’80s on the troubling environmental declines throughout the Bay. Harry Hughes was more than equal to the challenge, becoming forever associated with championing the Chesapeake.
In September of 1978, I was assigned to cover his upset victory in the Democratic primary, which in those days was tantamount to winning the governorship.
A phone call from my wife cut that assignment short. She was giving birth — six weeks early. Racing to the hospital, we mulled our list of baby names. Tyler, we decided, if it was a boy. It was, and Tyler, now 40, is doing good.
But I often told Harry, if we’d realized just how good he was going to be, the name, hands down, would have been Harry Hughes Horton.