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What's Up Magazine

What’s Up? Visionaries: Governor Harry Hughes

Jan 19, 2016 04:18PM ● By Cate Reynolds
Former Maryland governor, Harry Hughes, shakes my hand as I enter his home. At age 89, he’s still tall and handsome. More importantly, he’s a man of integrity. As we begin to talk, he recounts his long political career, which began as a Democratic Maryland State delegate in 1955 and ended as a two-term governor in 1986. “When I ran for the House of Delegates, I went door to door and that was really effective,” he says. “My total campaign budget was 156 dollars.”

In 1958, he won a seat in the State senate where he remained for 12 years. Governor Marvin Mandel then appointed Hughes as the first secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation in 1971, but because of his opposition to an unethical Baltimore subway contract, he abruptly resigned in 1977. “I had no idea what I would do next.”

That was decided when the law firm of Miles and Stockbridge made him partner. Meanwhile, the media wondered whether his stance against government corruption would springboard him into a run for governor. Encouraged to run as a dark-horse candidate, he won the election in a surprise landslide victory in 1978. As Maryland’s 57th governor, his goal was to restore the state’s tarnished reputation. “To me integrity means doing the right thing,” he says.

His most important achievement was his commitment to restore the polluted Chesapeake Bay. At the Chesapeake Bay Summit held in 1983, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, along with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, agreed to cooperate in this massive endeavor, and in 1984, the Critical Areas Act, designed to restrict development within 1,000 feet of tidal wetlands, was passed. “The issue had been put on the shelf so often, and I said, ‘Let’s do something. People really love that Bay.’”

His major crisis began in 1985, when a few of Maryland’s privately insured savings and loan institutions (S&Ls) collapsed because of irregular dealings and risky loans—which began with Old Court S&L. Panicked depositors made a run on the banks and demanded their money back. Hughes later wrote, “I cannot recall another crisis that was so dangerous—so complicated.”

He and the legislature quickly worked to establish a state-backed insurance fund (MDIF) to replace the banks’ insufficient private insurance. “People were eventually able to recover their savings. They didn’t lose a penny except for their lost interest,” he recalls.

Long retired, Governor Hughes now lives in a comfortable home in Caroline County where he grew up. His study is lined with some of the numerous awards he’s received, and a book shelf is filled with photos of his governor years. But it’s the portrait of his late wife, Patricia, dominating his spacious living room, which catches my attention. “I attribute every success I’ve had in life to her,” he says. They were married for almost 60 years before she died of Parkinson’s disease in 2010. “That last year was the hardest, but she never once complained.”

At her funeral, he informed his startled audience, that they had first secretly married during her junior year at Bryn Mawr College. “We never told anyone,” he says.

Education was very important to this couple. Patricia’s father was a school principal and Harry’s mother taught high school English and French in Caroline County for 40 years. One of her students was Harry. “I’m glad she never taught me French,” he says with an endearing chuckle. “She would have been real embarrassed.”

He remembers his mother correcting essays and English papers until late at night. “She would tutor students whether they could pay or not.” It was her diligence and example that Harry would follow during his political career. “She taught me integrity.”

Patricia met Harry after she asked his mother to tutor her in the summer before entering the National Cathedral School in D.C. “Pat really looked good,” he remembers. “But I never let her forget that she asked me out first to a Bryn Mawr College dance.”

His great ambition was to become a professional baseball player. World War II briefly interrupted those plans when, at 17 years old, he joined the Navy Air Corps just as the war was ending. “The Germans knew I was coming so they gave up,” he jokes.

He later enrolled at the University of Maryland where he continued to play baseball while Pat sat in the stands and read a book. “That wasn’t very encouraging to me,” he remembers. After briefly playing for a Yankees farm team, he was released from his contract, and, at Pat’s urging, began to attend night classes at George Washington University Law School. Harry Hughes was on his way.

After a life of government service, he now stays active and in frequent touch with his two daughters, grandson, and three great-grandchildren. His legacy can be summed up in his 1982 inaugural speech:

“We can assign a single word to what Maryland state government means to people today: integrity.”

Anne McNulty