OCEAN CITY — Hundreds of people paid their respects Monday to a local man who negotiated with Fidel Castro and represented the nation as it returned the Panama Canal to its home country.
But there were no celebrity speakers at services for former U.S. Rep. William J. Hughes, whose name graces local institutions and who was known as a protector of Jersey Shore water quality.
Hughes died last Wednesday at home in Ocean City at age 87.
Speakers were family members and leaders and members of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, where the celebration of Hughes' life was held and where the family worships.
A granddaughter read selections from the memoirs he had recently finished.
“It’s the way my father wanted it,” said son William Hughes Jr. after the service, as he and other family members were preparing to go to the private burial service.
Hughes represented the 2nd Congressional District that covers much of South Jersey from 1975 to 1995. He then became ambassador to Panama after deciding not to run again for office.
Daniel Hughes Sr. lives in Florida, but said he spoke to his brother every day, including the day he died.
“I say to Bill, my beloved brother, farewell my brother, smooth sailing,” Daniel Hughes said. “You're at home, and Nancy's waiting for you. God love you.”
All family members stressed the strong marriage Hughes shared with Nancy, his wife of 61 years.
"They were a team,” eldest grandchild Barry Sullivan said.
“More than anything else our parents taught us how to love and showed us partnership in marriage and commitment,” said daughter Barbara Hughes Sullivan, as she reminisced about family trips to Vermont, St. Thomas and up and down the East coast in a travel trailer.
Some of her best memories were helping her parents with her dad’s campaign, going on the road around the district, working in the office and answering phones, and meeting constituents.
“Mom and Dad danced to ‘American Pie’ at my wedding. They loved to cut a rug,” Sullivan said. “They are together again on a beach, holding hands, sipping rum punch and toasting a life well lived and loved.”
When her father graduated from high school, eldest daughter Lynne Hughes said, his guidance counselor told him to get a job in a factory, "because he wasn’t college material."
That drew laughter from the crowd.
Instead, her dad worked, went to night school and got a scholarship to Rutgers University, “and the rest is history,” she said.
William Hughes Jr. remembered visiting his father’s childhood hometown of Penns Grove in Salem County with his dad in 1988, and going to the graves of his dad's father and grandfather.
“My parents had just gotten back from Cuba, where dad negotiated with Fidel Castro” for the right to pursue drug runners into Cuban waters, Hughes Jr. said. “We drove to an overgrown cemetery in the freezing rain, and sat in the car on a dirt road as Dad talked to a reporter about meeting Castro.”
He was using an early, huge cell phone, Hughes Jr. said.
“I noticed both our grandfather and great-grandfather died in the early 1960s — the time my father was a young country lawyer and Fidel Castro was America’s enemy number one,” he said. “Now 25 years later, my dad was sitting across the table from him in Cuba, negotiating for the U.S.”
The Rev. G. Douglas Eberly of Holy Trinity gave the homily.
"As Bill moves from Ocean City to the Celestial City, he begs us to continue building the celestial community of Martin Luther King Jr,” Eberly said.
Hughes' example is the best teacher, greatly needed in times like these, he said.
"Bill's outstanding accomplishments in Congress and in Panama bring to mind a quote of Maya Angelou," Eberly said of the late poet and writer of autobiography, most famously “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
"Courage is the most important virtue because without it other virtues can't function," Eberly quoted.
“His passion for gun safety is a case in point,” Eberly said of Hughes’ support for an assault weapon ban and controls on ammunition, even though in general he supported gun rights and represented a district where the NRA held sway.
William Hughes Jr. shared a story he said showed how much a part of the community in Panama his dad and mom had been, becoming members of a local church, doing fundraisers and walking the street without security.
“After he left, he returned with my mother to care for Maddie, my niece just born in Panama,” Hughes Jr. said. One day, his 66-year-old father was walking down the street with Maddie in a stroller, and drivers began blowing their horns, shouting “Ambassador!” and giving him the thumbs up sign.
“They all thought Maddie was his,” Hughes Jr. said to loud laughter from the crowd.
Hughes was grateful to be a congressman, as was clear from a selection of his memoirs read by that granddaughter, Maddie Walker de Hughes.
“There were few times I left the Capitol at night that I did not look back in awe … and marvel at my great fortune,” Walker de Hughes read.