Yesterday was Guru Purnima, a Hindu celebration when we honor our teachers. My father, Harold Hughes, passed away two weeks ago today, June 30, 2022. He was certainly one of my greatest teachers. In his honor, I share his eulogy…
“Thank you, everyone, for being here today. I’m Jurian, Hal’s youngest. If you know me better as Martha, the name I went by for the first 25 years of my life, that means you’ve been part of our family for a good long time. One of the major downsides to living to 92 is that you outlive so many of the people you care about and that care about you. That there are this many of us here today means a great deal to me and to my family.
Thank you to Dad’s golf buddies who brought out his social side. To those who worked with him in his earlier years; that part of his life meant so much to my dad. Thank you to Pastor Matthew and to this congregation, which has been a bedrock for my parents. And thank you to all those here today who I know will continue to show up for Mom. To Charlie’s wife Kelley and to Meg’s husband Mike, a very special thank you.
Our Mom, Mary, who is 94, grew up here, and our parents, who were married for nearly 70 years, lived here together for almost all of that time. I’m aware that for some of us here, Dad’s passing represents the end of an era. The era of Perlees, Ciaccios, Robertsons, Thomsons, Dubrins, Nagineys, Hiltons, Joneses, and more – some of whose children or whose children’s children are here today. Mom and Dad are some of the last of that generation. Men and women who married once, settled down, had families, stayed here, and as a result, had friends of 50, 60 years or more. Thank you for being here.
I had a really hard time sitting down to write about my father. How on earth could I adequately speak to who he was and what he meant to me? To us? I can’t. I’m afraid that one of my father’s great disappointments was that none of his children chose to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. The greatest compliment he ever gave me after a play was to say, “Ah, you would have made such a good trial lawyer.” So, perhaps he’ll look down and say the same today. That would make me happy.
As I said, I really struggled to write this. I asked for advice from David, my partner of 18 years, I reached out to my brother Charlie and my sister Meg for inspiration, I procrastinated in every way I could think of, and then I found myself, of course, doing the one thing that made sense to me – because I AM my father’s daughter – I mowed the lawn.
If you knew Hal you know that he appreciated a well-maintained lawn. (I know for a fact that this current drought and its effect on his lawn were heart-breaking for him.) As long as I can remember, my father took great pride in keeping his lawn neat and well-trimmed, free of any intruding dandelions or crabgrass. At times, I thought my father’s lawn may have been one of the great loves of his life, he gave it so much attention. But having a well-kept lawn meant more to him than just lovely green grass – more than trying to keep up with his amazing neighbor, Bill Quay – to whom my family owes a special thank you for all your care and support – of both our parents. I can’t imagine a more perfect neighbor for my father. I think Bill Quay understood that for Dad keeping a neat lawn was part of being a good neighbor. It was doing his part for the common good of the community. It meant controlling what he could, keeping chaos at bay. It required hard work, yes, but it confirmed that small, constant acts of discipline could have great payoffs. It was Dad’s responsibility, and it was part of leading a civilized life. Our father cared deeply about such things.
You take care of the things that matter to you. You maintain them. Whether it’s a lawn or a car or one’s tools, or one’s body. For decades my dad got up every single morning without fail and ran a mile up and down what used to be Pangburn Road. When the doctor told him he couldn’t run any longer it became walking. And when walking became too much, he took to doing whatever his body could still do. At 92 he still woke up every morning, and before breakfast, got down on the living room floor and did “his exercises”. The man was disciplined. And he took care of what mattered to him. Quietly.
My sister recalled the many times he helped friends and family members with legal questions, moral support – whatever was needed to get them through tough times. Meg told me that for years now people have been coming up to tell her about good deeds Dad did for them, none of which any of us ever knew about. Dad was a quiet, behind the scenes helper. He didn’t look for recognition, unless it was for the rare hole-in-one he got on a golf course.
He wasn’t one to celebrate his own accomplishments. I remember, back in 1999, when he retired from being a Supreme Court Judge for New York State after nearly three decades, there was a dinner for him. I was 35 at the time, living in New York City, and I drove up to attend. I knew it was pretty cool that Dad had been a judge, but when I walked into that dinner and saw the sheer number of people, I was shocked. Who were all these people acknowledging my dad? And the way they talked about him. With a respect for who he was and the principles that he exemplified in his work. This was a man who I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t really seen. I had taken for granted the way he showed up for our family, and for me.
He (and Mom) came to almost every play I did (no matter where it was, it seemed). He adjusted his work schedule so he could drive my friends and me home after play rehearsal all through high school, or to theatre school in Albany, on Saturdays – one of his only days off. My brother Charlie remembers the way Dad found time to coach his Little League Team, even when Dad was so busy in those early years of his career. He found time. He quietly showed up. Where it mattered.
This is not to say that Dad was all sweetness and light. Hardly. In his younger years, especially, he could have quite a temper. And I imagine that the ‘judge’ in him – the qualities which gained him a reputation for being keen, tough, unbiased – and fair – could also have made him quite challenging to work with at times.
But my dad loved the law. He loved it with all his heart. He loved the clarity of it, its riverbanks, that there was a right and a wrong, and that he was tasked with discerning that.
I’ve heard it said – and perhaps you have, too – that we become more of who we are as we age. Because of that, I really expected my father as he aged to become more ‘the judge’ – more attached to seeing the black and the white of the world and eliminating the gray. Harder, less forgiving. But he didn’t. He surprised me.
My siblings have always teased me that – as the youngest – I got the best of my Dad. That as he got older he became a more relaxed, attentive, affectionate father. I think that’s probably true. He spoiled me terribly. I blame him for my sweet tooth to this day.
It surprised me, though, that Dad continued to get better with age. After his retirement from the bench he got gentler, softer, kinder. More merciful. And I think our Mom, Mary, brought out the very best in him, especially in these last few years.
He loved his wife Mary very much. As my sister said, “While Dad was not a mushy, demonstrative fellow by nature, he was always there for Mom, even when it was hard. He told Meg last week, “Your mom took such good care of me for so many years, I’m going to return the favor as long as I can.”
And he did. He showed up. For as long as he possibly could. So, so beautifully. And we will miss him terribly. We will miss him terribly.”