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Who is Hugh Morton?

Ben Steelman

A longtime promoter, developer and nationally known photographer, Wilmington native Hugh MacRae Morton was best known as the proprietor of Grandfather Mountain near Linville.

For his hometown, however, Morton performed two major services. He was the first president of the Azalea Festival, 1947-1948, putting the annual celebration on a sound footing. Later, he masterminded a campaign to raise $315,000 to bring the World War II vessel to Wilmington as a floating memorial.

Morton was born in Wilmington, Feb. 19, 1921, the son of Julian Morton and Agnes MacRae Morton. His grandfather, Hugh MacRae, was the noted developer who founded the Tidewater Power Co., built the Lumina pavilion at Wrightsville Beach, and established immigrant farm colonies at Castle Hayne and other locations across Southeastern North Carolina.

Young Hugh spent many summers at a youth camp near Linville, N.C., on land owned by his grandfather. There, at the age of 13, he acquired his first camera. Within a year, one of Morton’s photographs of a western North Carolina golf tournament was published in Time magazine.

After attending Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., Morton entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1939 and quickly became a staff photographer for the student newspaper, the Tar Heel, and the yearbook, The Yackety Yack. He withdrew from the university in 1942 to enlist in the Army and was assigned to the Signal Corps as a newsreel cameraman. As such, Morton saw action on Guadalcanal, Bougainville and on the Philippine island of Leyte with the 25th Infantry Division. There, in March 1945, he was wounded by a Japanese booby-trap. Discharged with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Morton came home in time to watch some of his newsreel footage playing at Wilmington’s Royal Theater.

In December 1945, he married Julia Hathaway Taylor of Greensboro. The couple would have two sons and two daughters.

After the war, Morton entered the family real estate business and became active in the Jaycees. He continued to pursue his photography interests, with a specialty in sports, and he became a regular fixture each spring at Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournaments. In 1949, he was president of the N.C. Press Photographers Association, and from 1950 to 1965, he chaired the Southern Short Course in Press Photography.

Drafted as president of the Azalea Festival, Morton quickly rallied support from the city’s civic clubs. He recruited Hollywood actress Jacqueline White as the first Azalea Queen and convinced Ted Malone, a noted radio commentator at the time, to come to Wilmington and promote the festival on its broadcasts.

In 1952, after the death of his grandfather, Morton inherited some 4,500 acres of land near Linville, including the famous Grandfater Mountain. Morton quickly converted it into a popular tourist attraction, erecting the “Mile-High Swing Bridge” between the mountain’s twin peaks and promoting such annual events there as the Highland Games and the “Singin’ on the Mountain” gospel festival. Over the years, Morton also worked to create an environmental sanctuary on the mountain, turning “Mildred,” a half-tame black bear released from the Atlanta Zoo, into a marketing icon. He relocated permantly from Wilmington to Linville in 1974.

Meanwhile, Morton became increasingly involved in state affairs. In 1951, he was appointed to the state Board of Conservation and Development, effectively taking charge of North Carolina’s tourist publicity and marketing efforts. In 1956, he served as publicity chairman for Luther H. Hodges’ campaign governor.

Four years later, Gov. Hodges named Morton to head the statewide “Save Our Ship” campaign, with a goal of raising $275,000 to salvage the mothballed battleship USS North Carolina (which the Navy had planned to scrap) and to bring it to North Carolina.

Morton quickly recruited prominent Tar Heels, such as David Brinkley and Andy Griffith, as spokesmen for the drive. He created the “Admiral in the Tar Heel Navy” to honor large contributors, and he solicited small-change donations from North Carolina’s schoolchildren. (Each young contributor received a free pass to the battleship as soon as it opened.) Donations soon exceeded the fund-raising goal. In 1961, Gov. Terry Sanford appointed Morton as first chairman of the USS North Carolina Battleship Commission — a state agency which, like the Azalea Festival, Morton arranged to be self-supporting. As chairman, on April 29, 1962, Morton presided over the North Carolina’s arrival and docking in his home town.

In 1971, Morton announced his candidacy for governor as a Democrat, but he withdrew from the race before the primary. During the 1980s, he headed the “Save the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse” campaign, raising some $500,000 and even convincing political rivals Sen. Jesse Helms and Gov. Jim Hunt to endorse the effort together. Later, however, he criticized the federal government’s plans to move the lighthouse inland to rescue it from coastal erosion. Morton instead preferred building a sea wall to protect the lighthouse. He lost that argument; the lighthouse was moved 2,870 feet away from the ocean in a massive engineering operation between 1999 and 2000.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Morton became increasingly outspoken on the hazards of acid rain and the damage that air pollution was causing to trees in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1995, he produced a documentary, “The Search for Clean Air,” narrated by Walter Cronkite, which was televised nationally by PBS.

Morton published a number of book-length collections of his photos, including “Making a Difference in North Carolina” (with Edward L. Rankin Jr.), “Hugh Morton’s North Carolina” and “Hugh Morton, North Carolina Photographer.” He also wrote “Mildred the Bear: Mildred’s Own Story as Told to Hugh Morton.”

In 1961, The State magazine declared Morton “Tar Heel of the Year.” In 1998, he was inducted into Wilmington’s Walk of Fame and in 2005, the Star-News presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Morton died June 1, 2006, in Linville, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was buried on the Grandfather Mountain property.

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