Mort Hughes had 92 years of history behind him when he died, so at his funeral last month, it took a long string of speakers to touch on everything he’d done.
Meghan Wren, who knew Hughes from decades of working with him on the A.J. Meerwald, New Jersey’s tall ship, estimated she was one of about 10 people who got up to try to sum up his life.
But here are a few highlights:
Hughes grew up farming in Middle Township and enlisted in the Army in World War II. In the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, he was captured by Germans, with dozens of shrapnel wounds lacing his legs. He survived brutal conditions, and his weight dropped to less than 100 pounds. But he was liberated to return to his wife, Millie, a Cape May County girl who married Mort shortly before he went overseas. They were married 59 years before Millie died in 2003.
They lived on a farm in Lower Township, where Mort was a local legend for the pole beans he grew. He always called himself a farmer, but he became a shipbuilder at Tony’s Marine Railway, also in Lower.
“He’d work all day at Tony’s,” said Milt Edelman, who calls him “the smartest guy I ever met. ... Then at night, he’d go to Snow’s (clam cannery) and run a forklift. And he’d still manage to hunt and farm and trap and carve.”
Edelman, 66, of West Cape May, worked with Mort at Tony’s and on the Meerwald. Mort was an early and vital volunteer on an ambitious, nearly hopeless-looking dream of turning a beat-up old wreck of a boat back into a proud sailing schooner. One of his jobs was cutting off 15 tons of steel from the boat’s wooden frame — and he was the perfect guy to do that, because he’d put all that steel on the boat in the 1950s, at Tony’s.
But Mort also wasn’t one to brag about his knowledge, said Wren, the head of the nonprofit group that runs the tall ship.
“He didn’t tell me (he put the steel on) until after he took it down,” Wren said. “And I knew him for at least five years before I knew he was a POW. ... You’d talk with him and think you knew him, and then he’d just pop up with something like that.”
Charles Hughes Sr., 66, the oldest of Mort and Millie’s three children, said his dad didn’t talk about his POW experiences for years after the war. But once he started opening up, he would go to local high schools and tell the kids what he went through, to help them learn American history.
And still, there was much, much more to Mort’s life.
“He did a lot of decoy carving in his later years,” his son said — and did it well enough that his birds were popular in local art exhibits. “There wasn’t much he couldn’t do. If he set his mind to something, he would do it pretty darn well.”
A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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