Could there be anyone feted more than Hugh Morton?

by DG Martin

“Could there be anyone who loves North Carolina more?”

This question about Hugh Morton, from a book review in the Raleigh. News & Observer, keeps coming back to me, even now two months after his death.

In the short time since his death, the long lists of his accomplishments and his causes have been repeated for us. The preservation of Grandfather Mountain. The saving of the Battleship North Carolina. His work to save the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. His expanding campaign for quality of air in the mountains.

These lists go on and on. Each time I heard or read about him since his death, I learn of some new accomplishment or cause he led. For instance, I learned from UNC-Chapel Hill athletic director Dick Baddour how hard and tenaciously Morton worked for the big statue of Charlie Justice near Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

Many people know Hugh Morton best as a photographer. Hugh Morton would not mind. He was proud of being a photographer. It was, many think, his favorite role.

“Who is that older man sitting on the sidelines taking pictures?” was a question I often heard from visitors to basketball games at Carolina’s Dean Dome. He followed and chronicled sports at the UNC-CH for more that 60 years.

Morton wrote that sports photography “provided me with lessons for living. The importance of sportsmanship is probably the most valuable lesson one can learn from athletic competition, even surpassing the need for competitiveness itself. The rogues and bums in sports sometimes sell more tickets, but the true heroes in the public eye carry themselves well, and above all they are good sports in their deeds and in their statements. Teamwork, competitive spirit, dedication, and loyalty – you see all of that in sports, and as a sports photographer you are privileged to see it up close and personal.”

Much more important, however, is the record he made of North Carolina and its people during this time. His various activities took him all over the state, all the time. His prominence and winning personality gave him access to people and places that would not always be open to the rest of us.

As a result of his diligence and great skill he created a collection of tens of thousands of images of North Carolina over much of the 20th century. Thanks to his and his family’s generosity, his collection will be available to all North Carolinians as a part of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection.

UNC Press’s recent publication of Hugh Morton’s North Carolina made hundreds of his best photographs conveniently available. The book was so popular that Morton, just before his death, rushed to assemble a second volume. It will be released later this year.

Thanks to these wonderful photographs, Hugh Morton’s name will be a familiar one for many generations of people who love North Carolina.

As fine a legacy as these photographs are, Hugh Morton’s great gift to me is his example of personal commitment to worthwhile causes. The causes he picked were important, but they were often not “sure bets.”

Some of his greatest accomplishments were “lost causes” until he got involved.

But once he picked his cause, he fought for it tooth and nail.

WRAL-TV’s Bill Leslie captured this side of Morton very well.

“Hugh was Mr. Tenacity,” he said. “He seized upon an issue with laser beam focus, studied it thoroughly, carved out a position, stuck to it and rallied the troops to bring about corrective change. He wasn’t always successful but you couldn’t help but admire his passion and conviction. Hugh Morton wasn’t a slap-your-back, joke it up charmer. His speech was almost quiet at times. He was even keeled and always the gentleman. More than anything else he was thoughtful, sincere and genuine and I think that’s what really won me over.”

The qualities Leslie describes made Morton an important role model for me.

And the icing on the cake is that he loved North Carolina so much.