By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
He was a politician who fiercely protected the Jersey Shore.
He was a skilled diplomat who was able to negotiate a deal with the notoriously combative Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
He was a devoted family man who was always there for his children and grandchildren, no matter how busy he was in the political world.
And he was a husband who adored his wife, Nancy.
That is how his family, friends and speakers described former U.S. Rep. William J. Hughes as they said their final goodbyes during the funeral for the Ocean City political icon who died at home last Wednesday at age 87.
Hundreds of mourners filled the stained-glass sanctuary of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Monday to celebrate Hughes’ life and honor his decades of public service as a 10-term South Jersey congressman and U.S. ambassador to Panama under former President Bill Clinton.
“Indeed, for Bill public service was a devotion, not a job,” the Rev. G. Douglas Eberly said while delivering the homily.
Paraphrasing a famous quote by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from World War II, Eberly said of Hughes, “Never have so many owed so much to someone.”
Touching on Hughes’ political accomplishments, Eberly spoke of how Hughes fought in Congress to protect the Jersey Shore from pollution and championed gun control legislation to ban assault rifles.
He also praised Hughes for his “pioneering and prophetic leadership.”
Hughes’ children and grandchildren recalled a tenderhearted family man who was there for their graduations, weddings and other major milestones in their lives, despite his responsibilities as a congressman and diplomat.
They reminisced about the treasured family trips they made to Vermont, Washington, D.C., and Panama and their vacation jaunts to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
On a more serious note, his son, William J. Hughes Jr., told mourners of how his father, while serving as the ambassador to Panama, sat down across the table from Fidel Castro in Cuba to negotiate a U.S.-backed agreement to fight drug trafficking in the Caribbean.
Hughes Jr. said he remembered his father discussing the Castro negotiations during a trip that Hughes Jr., and his dad made to a cemetery in Salem County to visit the gravesites of his grandfather and great-grandfather.
“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 No. 1,” he said. “Now 25 years later, my dad was sitting across the table from him in Cuba, negotiating for the U.S.”
Hughes Sr. grew up in humble beginnings in Penns Grove, Salem County. He attended night school and won a scholarship to Rutgers University to launch his career as a lawyer, his children said. Hughes Jr. said his father rose to become “a giant in the halls of Congress.”
Hughes served from 1975 to 1995 in the Second Congressional District representing parts of South Jersey, including the shore. After leaving Congress, he was appointed ambassador to Panama by Clinton and served in that role until 1998.
Lynne Hughes, Hughes’ oldest daughter, noted how her father, a Democrat, became known as a congressman who was adept at negotiating on both sides of the aisle. She spoke of his “commitment to fairness and decency.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more of that today?” she said, calling for civility amid the partisan rancor in Washington, D.C.
Lynne Hughes said her father had finished his memoirs recently, culminating his “long and successful life’s journey.”
Both Lynne Hughes and Maddie Walker de Hughes, Hughes’ granddaughter, who was born in Panama, read excerpts from the memoirs, including one passage in which Hughes expressed his awe of being in Congress.
“I truly loved that lofty institution that we call Congress,” Hughes wrote.
Barbara Hughes Sullivan, the second-oldest of Hughes’ four children, said that her father and mother taught their children the importance of values, respect, moral responsibility and family.
“More than anything, our parents showed us how to love,” she said.
Hughes Sullivan envisioned her father reunited in death with her late mother, both sharing a celebratory drink on a beautiful beach.
“They’re smiling down from heaven, together again … toasting a life well-loved and lived,” she said.
Bill and Nancy Hughes were married in 1956. Nancy died in January 2018. They were long-time residents of Ocean City, a community that they came to love and support through their community service, family members said.
Their names grace the Bill and Nancy Hughes Performing Arts Center at Ocean City High School, an honor that reflects their devotion to education and the arts.
Barry Sullivan Jr., the oldest of Hughes’ grandchildren, spoke of how special it was to visit the Ocean City home of his grandparents. Displaying his sense of humor, Hughes would read his grandchildren letters purportedly written to each of them by Santa on Christmas.
“His sense of humor and wit were always present,” Sullivan said.
Daniel V. Hughes Sr., Hughes’ brother, said that the two of them would speak every day by phone, even though Daniel lives in Florida. They also spoke on the day that Bill Hughes died.
Choking back tears, Daniel Hughes bade his brother an emotional goodbye, saying he is now reunited with his wife.
“Farewell, my friend. Smooth sailing. You’re at home. Nancy’s waiting for you. God love you,” Daniel Hughes said.
Hughes was buried in the Seaside Cemetery in Palermo, next to his wife. In addition to their children, Lynne, Barbara and William Jr., Bill and Nancy Hughes are survived by another daughter, Tama Hughes, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.