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Tar Heel People/September/Our State/1675 words

Grandfather's Guardian

By Ralph Grizzle

One bright June day, Hugh Morton drove me to the top of his Grandfather Mountain. As we gazed on the valley below and on the distant mountains to the west, a pair of ravens rode the wind currents off the rocky precipice across the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. Diving and rising without flapping a single beat, the two dark dots silently stroked the still blue sky with their gentle gliding.

I'm not sure whether Hugh (he prefers to be called by his first name) was amused by the ravens' aerobatics or lulled into a sense of serenity by their peaceful flight, but he declared he could sit and watch them all day long. It was a nice thought, and I agreed, but I found it odd coming from the man sitting beside me. Odd, because Hugh is a man forever on the go, always pitching in for the good cause, always promoting the mountain, and the state, that he loves so dearly.

And as he nears his 80th birthday, Hugh shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to be driven by a lifelong mission: to make sure that all are able to gaze upon the glories of what he regards as the true treasures of our state.

That explains, of course, why Hugh has traveled with a camera in tow for the past six decades, why he headed up the first North Carolina Azalea Festival at Wilmington (in 1948), why he fought to save the USS North Carolina and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (though, in its historic location), why he battled to keep the Blue Ridge Parkway from going over his mountain instead of around it, and why he is fighting now to save the Western North Carolina mountains from industrial polluters west of the state's borders.

"Hugh Morton is North Carolina's greatest promoter," his late good friend Charles Kuralt remarked when Hugh was honored with the North Caroliana Society Award for 1996. "Always, however, of things that ought to be celebrated."

Among the many public roles he has played, Hugh has served as chairman of the State Advertising Committee and president of the state's Travel Council. He received the Charles Parker Award, handed out only to those who have performed a great service for North Carolina tourism. "John Harden, who was the private secretary for Governor Cherry, once told me that no matter who you are a plumber, a carpenter or whoever you owe something to the industry that you're part of and that you need to give something back," Hugh says. It is a message that he has always taken to heart.

Coastal Bred

Hugh MacRae Morton was born in Wilmington on February 19, 1921, the grandson of Hugh MacRae. MacRae bought up 16,000 acres in the mountains in 1885, founded Linville and built 18 miles of stagecoach road between it and Blowing Rock in 1891. (The state came along later, paved the road without straightening a single curve and called it U.S. Highway 221.)

The grandson spent winters in Wilmington and summers in Linville. At age 13, at Camp Yonahnoka, he became the camp photographer. Summers in the mountains became adventures in photography.

As a young man, Hugh carried his newly acquired skill to Chapel Hill, where he worked as a photographer for The Daily Tar Heel, the student-run newspaper, and Yakety Yack, the campus yearbook.

In 1942, he left behind Chapel Hill to tour the South Pacific, courtesy of the U.S. Government. A combat motion picture photographer for the Signal Corps, Tech Sergeant Morton earned a Purple Heart to go with his Bronze Star, when he and his company were ambushed at the mouth of a booby-trapped cave. The explosion destroyed his camera and sent rocks into his body. A deep scar on his left arm and one on his chin remind him of that dangerous episode.

Upon his return, Hugh went to work as a photographer for UNC Sports Information director Jake Wade. At 79, Hugh still works as a sports photographer for Carolina basketball. You can often catch a glimpse of him at the end of the court with his younger colleagues. "I'll continue to do it as long as I can," Hugh says.

During his six-decade career, Hugh has photographed such sports greats as Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice and Michael Jordan. Hugh has also captured on film a number of U.S. presidents, Thomas Wolfe's mother, Bob Hope, General Douglas MacArthur, Johnny Cash, Billy Graham, Sam Ervin, Andy Griffith (when he played Sir Walter Raleigh for six years before going on to greater fame), Queen Elizabeth, and, of course, Mildred the Bear.

Bear Necessities

Bears are dear to Hugh's heart, especially Mildred, who came to Grandfather when she was two. "The trouble with Mildred was that she thought she was human," Hugh says. Once, when another bear attacked an employee, Mildred came to the rescue, baring teeth and claws to scare the assailant. "There were no other people around," Hugh says. "The fellow screamed for help, and Mildred came running. He swore until the day of his death that Mildred had saved his life."

In 1952, Hugh inherited Grandfather Mountain from his grandfather MacRae when the family elected to divide up MacRae's estate. Hugh had spent much of his youth photographing landscapes and wildlife on Grandfather, so the family thought it right that the 4,500-acre tract around Grandfather Mountain be passed along to him. Hugh got to work right away, extending the road to the crest of the mountain and building the Mile-High Swinging Bridge.

From the start, Hugh has considered his role to be that of a steward of the land, working hard to preserve its natural beauty. In the mid-1950s, he fought the U.S. Park Service, which was determined to run a road near the top of Grandfather Mountain. Hugh, who had already granted right-of-way at a lower elevation, fought for 12 years, arguing that running a road over the top of Grandfather would be like "taking a switchblade to the Mona Lisa." Hugh's victory resulted in the Blue Ridge Parkway Viaduct on Grandfather Mountain, the engineering marvel that clings to the side of Grandfather Mountain and has won numerous awards for its aesthetic design.

Hugh has always had an aesthetic sensibility, though. That shows in the many photos he has snapped over the years. Ever generous, Hugh shares his knowledge with other photographers. In 1950, he became chairman of the Southern Short Course in News Photography. "North Carolina was at the absolute bottom of the scale at the time [with regard to photographic quality]," Hugh says. "Soon after we started the course, our folks began to get jobs with National Geographic and Life. I like to think that these programs we've sponsored have done a lot to raise the standard of news photography in this part of the world." The program continues at various campuses across North Carolina and summers on Hugh's mountain as the Grandfather Mountain Camera Clinic.

Hugh's wife of 50 years, Julia, admires her husband's generosity. She views one of his greatest accomplishments as having provided a link between the private and public sectors of tourism in the state. In the mid-1970s, Charlotte Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill asked Julia to sum up her husband in just a few words. "I've thought about that many times since," she says, "and I think the best way to describe him is that he is a giant, larger than life."

Her attitude has not changed in the intervening quarter century. And we couldn't agree more. Grandfather's guardian is a giant, as gentle, though, as Mildred the Bear and as graceful as the ravens that ride the currents of fresh June breezes on top of Grandfather Mountain.

To be used as a caption

Morton's photography has graced the pages of National Geographic, Life, Time, Esquire, the Associated Press and many other publications, including this one. "What distinguished me as a photographer," Hugh says, "was that I knew how to take my pictures to the mailbox."


Charles Kuralt's Remarks On The Occasion of Julia and Hugh Morton's 50th Wedding Anniversary

I was asked to speak here tonight, because during the bicentennial I was the guy who stood there in front of the President of the United States and said that I was there to speak for all of us who could not afford to go to Duke . . . and would not have gone there even if we could have!

We have great affection for Duke University. All of us in this room know how important it is to our state, and know how important the rivalry is. And if there had never been a Duke (which of course there was not, during most of the distinguished history of the University of North Carolina); if there had never been a Duke, we would have had to invent it.

We would have made it a place with severe gothic arches and ivy growing on the walls, to persuade the more naive undergraduates that they had been admitted to Yale after all.

And we would have given it a towering national reputation (in some odd things, like parapsychology and the rice diet), but a national reputation.

We would have sent Richard Nixon there to study constitutional law. Best of all, we would have sent one of our own, the beloved Terry Sanford, over there to keep an eye on things.

And finally, we would have built the campus close to our own, so that those over-serious people, heads of great utilities, and rich people, could come here for parties. And I say that Julia and Hugh have shown true Carolina spirit in inviting them to this one.

We should all thank them for this, for bringing us together. There aren't many things that bring us together, but Julia and Hugh can do it.

But I can not help adding that this is the same Julia Morton and Hugh Morton who had a dog named Dutchess. Dutchess would roll over on her back, and stare blank eyes at the ceiling, and raise her four paws stiffly into the air, when asked, "would you rather be a dead dog or go to Duke."

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