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Hugh Morton begins the first episode of Biographical Conversations talking about his grandfather, Hugh MacRae. MacRae lived in Delaware but decided to move to the North Carolina mountains because of his interest in mining mica, an expensive stone at the time. As he familiarized himself with both east and west North Carolina, he began buying property on both the coast and in the mountains, including a 16,000 acre tract of land that included Grandfather Mountain. Morton says that his grandfather's original intent for the land was to use it as a summer resort.
Morton's most vivid memory of his grandfather was after World War II, when his grandfather had bought a 100-acre park in New Hanover County and donated it to the county. After Morton came back from World War II, he found the county had been using it for a trash dump, and his grandfather threatened to revoke the county's rights to it if they didn't clean it up. The county did clean it up, and after that, asked him if they could build a high school on it, promising to name it MacRae High School after him. The day before MacRae died, he told Morton to look after the park, and Morton refused to allow the high school to be built there.
Grandfather MacRae's most famous venture, of course, was Grandfather Mountain, named for its profile of an old man looking up into the sky. Morton also describes his parents and how being able to experience both eastern and western North Carolina gave him a fuller experience of the state.
Morton's photography career began at summer camp, when the photography teacher didn't show up, and he was dubbed a junior counselor because he was 14. His first photography assignment was for the Charlotte Observer while he was in camp, as they needed a photograph of the young golfer, Harvey Ward. After that, he did sports photos for the publications of his high school, and then the student publications of UNC-Chapel Hill when he entered as a freshman. His most famous photograph-that of UNC President Frank Porter Graham-happened as a matter of luck when he attended one of President Graham's Sunday open houses and Graham challenged him to a game of horseshoes. Camera in hand, Morton shot what would become one of the most widely used photographs he ever took.
His next exciting photography experience came during World War II, when Morton went to the South Pacific as part of the Army Signal Corps. After another photographer was killed, Morton was promoted to news reel photographer and was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division in Luzan, Philippines. Morton remembers that conditions were so dangerous that he had to use code language with his father to let him know where he was. While in Luzan, Morton photographed General Douglas MacArthur and saw front line combat; even to the point of being injured. While he law in an army hospital being treated for his injuries, he received news that his father had died.
After the war, Morton returned to Wilmington and traveled back and forth between the east coast and Linville. He experienced constant reminders of the war, between the branches that would crack like gunfire and the Royal Theater in Wilmington, in which he saw the photos he had taken in Luzan blazing on the movie screen for everyone to see.
Part 2: Adult Life and Grandfather Mountain
Morton's portrayal of his wife and three children opens the second part of our series. He describes his wife, Julia Hathaway Taylor, as "smarter" than he is and dedicated to her causes, as are his two daughters and one son, who help him with the family business.
Morton sometimes fell into his leadership positions, as he recalls when he relates how his absence from a meeting landed him the position of president of the Wilmington Azalea Festival. The Azalea Festival was no small fair, he says, as he names some of the former Azalea Queens-Elizabeth Dole for one.
His experience as president o the NC Photography Press Association and his meeting with Andy Griffith in 1950 mark two other highlights in Morton's life. However, neither was as life-changing as his grandfather McCrae's death in 1950, which left Morton with full responsibility for Hugh McCrae Park in Wilmington and the land including Grandfather Mountain.
Morton faced this new challenge with a refreshing vision. Why not make Grandfather Mountain a place where visitors could come and enjoy the grandeur of the Blue Ridge Range? He updated an old bridge a mile above sea level and left enough flexibility in the supports to allow it to sway back and forth when people walked over it. The Swinging Bridge would be the center of conversation-and heckling by some NC celebrities-for many generations.
The annual "Singing on the Mountain" began as a small gospel concert in 1924, and Morton recalls its evolution into a major annual gathering. One year in particular stands out for him-the year Billy Graham agreed to speak at the event and drew he largest crowd in the history of the mountain.
Grandfather Mountain itself has seen many changes and been the subject of some fierce battles. One such battle, as Morton recalls, was over the route of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which National Park Service officials proposed building through Grandfather Mountain. After years of debates and public protests-including a plea by Arthur Smith-the Linn Cove Viaduct was born, a quarter mile stretch of road built around the mountain.
His grandfather's legacy did not end with Grandfather Mountain. Morton also inherited his love of politics. He began attending Democratic National Convention meetings in 1956. Using his influence and resources, he managed to save the USS North Carolina from a scrapping fate and raised money to build a library in honor of President John F. Kennedy. Morton closes by remembering the special program he coordinated to raise the funds for the library.
Part 3: Fighting for Clean Air
Hugh Morton's story of Mildred's arrival to Grandfather Mountain begins the final installment of Biographical Conversations. Morton explains how Mildred and her kindred black bears became a protected species on the mountain.
Politics began to be more and more a part of Morton's life, beginning with a campaign to institute liquor by the drink in North Carolina. In the early 1970s, he followed the suggestion of some of his friends in the travel industry to run for governor, but he pulled out of the race before the primary. After Jim Hunt was elected for governor, Morton assisted him with some of his agendas, including a campaign to change the state Constitution so that governors could run for more than one term. Morton did not always automatically comply with Governor Hunt's requests, however. When Governor Hunt asked him to campaign for an unpopular gas tax in the early 1980s, Morton suggested that he ask Arthur Smith for help instead.
One of Morton's most memorable political ventures was his campaign to save Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from sliding into the ocean. In fact, he says, it was the only time that Senator Jesse Helms and Governor Hunt worked together, an occasion that allowed them to reach their fundraising goal of $500,000. Years later, Morton would protest the relocation of the lighthouse, a battle that he would eventually lose.
In the early 1990s, Morton became much more actively involved in the battle to clean up air pollution. As more and more pollution drifted to North Carolina from the Tennessee Valley Authority's 13 coal-burning plants, Morton watched trees and wildlife succumb to the black poisonous cloud that was slowly becoming a permanent part of the North Carolina sky. So he teamed up with Robert Bruck, a plant pathologist from NC State University, to learn more about how the pollution was affecting the forests and streams. From this partnership came a new documentary about how pollution affected the earth and human health: The Search for Clean Air, narrated by Walter Cronkite and airing on UNC-TV. The special inspired the 2002 General Assembly to pass the Clean Smokestacks Bill.
In 1980, Morton donated several thousand acres of land to the Nature Conservancy. A few years later, a debate between Linville residents and developers began because of a proposal to develop the Wilmor tract between Grandfather and Sugar Mountains. To appease both sides and make a wise business venture, he gave 800 acres of land to the Nature Conservancy and gave 100 acres to a local developer for a future shopping center.
From his most recent years, Morton recalls some tears--namely over the death of Mildred the Bear---and much laughter. He shares thoughts about his friendly rivalry with Duke, his friendship with Charles Kuralt and a hint of what will be in his new book, featured on an upcoming Bookwatch episode.