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65 Years With Vineyard Gazette : Country Editor Henry Hough Dies

Times Staff Writer

Henry Beetle Hough, the self-styled “country editor” who wrote of the wild roses and whippoorwills of Martha’s Vineyard for more than six decades, bringing him the honors of his profession, the praise of preservationists and the veneration of his subscribers, has died at age 88.

Hough died Thursday at his home in Edgartown, Mass., on the 18-mile-long island five miles off Cape Cod. For 65 of his 88 years, he was editor of the Vineyard Gazette, retaining the title even after he sold the paper in 1968 to James Reston, former executive editor and columnist for the New York Times.

At his death, he probably was the best-known country newspaperman since William Allen White, who became respected continents away from his small Kansas weekly.

Author of 23 books and countless articles in national publications, Hough was a graduate of the second class at Columbia University School of Journalism

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When he was only 22, he shared a special Pulitzer Prize for a paper he had written at Columbia, “History of Service Rendered by the American Press,” but it was his writing and reporting of what in other hands would have been mundane events for which he is remembered.

His professional affiliation with what had been a favored boyhood vacationland began when he was given the Martha Vineyard’s paper as a wedding gift from his father in 1920.

With his wife, Elizabeth Bowie, who died in 1965, he chronicled the club meetings, the high school athletic events and the church socials in an island where the population grows from 10,000 during barren winters to 50,000 in glorious summers.

He wrote homilies devoted to paper clips, waxed eloquently on the variety of colors to be found in a single flower and raged against the opening of a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant on his beloved island.

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Change in Refreshments Policy

In response to community complaints, he once editorialized that he would no longer describe the refreshments served at some local affairs, saying some were more “delicious” than others. Henceforth, he wrote, the Vineyard Gazette would report only that “refreshments were served.”

His simplistic reflections made him the most widely quoted country writer in the nation while his weekly newspaper (semiweekly during summer) grew from 600 purely local subscribers to 13,000 at his death.

Many of those subscriptions were mailed to most of the 50 states and 20 foreign lands because vacationers often fell under the spell of Hough’s homespun analogies and continued to read his prose years after they had last visited the editor’s cherished island, with its foreboding seas and rolling dunes.

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Disdain for Growth, Gadgets

Hough (pronounced Huff) treated growth and gadgets as unwelcome tenants he never was able to evict.

In one of his books, “Tuesday Will Be Different,” he wrote that he did not think “it’s possible to have Thanksgiving and television together at the same time.”

When not writing, he filled his days with long walks on the beach accompanied by a series of beloved collies, noting that he and his dogs “live together usefully . . . worlds together and worlds apart.”

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The first of his more than 20 books was “Country Editor” in 1940, and its publication brought to his door a range of celebrities including actress Katharine Cornell, writers William Styron and Thornton Wilder and artist Thomas Hart Benton.

He was a balding, modest man with a ready laugh and the ability to put events into the framework of his beloved real estate.

Asked shortly after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and the near drowning of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy if that was his biggest story, he replied: “Nonsense. The story was the descent of the media on the island.”

Part of a ‘Sustained Chronicle’

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In “Country Editor” he described his newspaper as part of a “sustained chronicle. . . . There are certain threads which carry through, year after year, recurring as the seasons recur in nature. Most often the best front-page stuff is acutely typical rather than violently exceptional, a respect in which the weekly newspaper differs radically from the daily.”

Hough developed a scientist’s knowledge of the island’s plants and birds and a poet’s outlook toward the people he encountered on his daily walks. He wrote with plaintive eloquence of Josie, an epileptic further burdened with an alcoholic father. He chronicled the wry humor of his neighbors. He asked one, a veteran stage actress, for her views on films. “Never been to one,” she answered. “They’re cheap as the catch on a 10-cent bracelet.”

He was a biographer and recognized Henry David Thoreau scholar, sharing with Walden Pond’s most famous resident a love of the New England countryside and a fear of its development.

Letter to Wife After Her Death

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Five years after the death of his first wife (he remarried in 1979), he wrote a letter to her, noting that since her passing:

“Time has wrought its changes. Trees have grown, limbs fallen, the paint on the ridgepole is thin. . . . The place you left is no longer the place from which you went.”

Of his own pending demise, he said old age had showed him that “the period of endurance shortens as the frail line goes on. In a clear view death has come to be the only inevitability and the matter of survival broadens from that of the individual to that of mankind.”


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