I recently had the pleasure of meeting Hugh Papworth in Alexandria Bay.
Our conversations were much like reviewing a photograph album – as this soft spoken gentleman tells some wonderful stories, all relating around five themes: the St. Lawrence River, flying, engineering, music and family.
Hugh was born in Syracuse, NY on July 20, 1922, and he has spent most of his 92 years coming back to the River from many far off places, including countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East and of course, several parts of the United States. In fact, one could say he is an international River Rat, having attended kindergarten in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, when his father was Comptroller of McKinnon Industries which later became part if General Motors.
His strong River connection began at 11, when he was responsible for catching the heavy lines of the SS Kingston, when she arrived at the Alexandria Bay Dock. In fact, when the Kingston was retired the crew presented Hugh with a section of the rope which today hangs in his basement.
The Papworth family first came to the River in the 1920s. In 1943, Edwin purchased "Nemahbin" (means sucker in the Iroquois language), the large 8 bedroom home on the west end of Comfort Island, for the cost of $12,900 in back taxes. (Comfort Island was divided by a small channel with the Mancel Clark home on the east end of the island and NahMahbin built on the west end by James H. Oliphant. (Oliphant was murdered in his Wall Street office in1907 by an investor who lost $80,000 in the stock market.) It was here that the Papworth family spent many summers in the islands. Hugh sold the property at auction in 2000, but retained a portion of the island which remains in the family.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was a turning point for Hugh. An engineering student at Cornell University, he went the next day to sign up; only to be told to finish his academic year. The day after school finished on June 6th, he reported at Binghamton and joined the Army Air Corps, being sent to Fort Niagara, which became a "reception center" for recruits and served as such until 1943. Soon after he was sent to Jackson, Tennessee, where he flew in his first plane and spent the next nine months completing three, three-month training sessions.
He well remembers his first flight. His instructor was immediately impressed with Hugh’s aircraft knowledge, until he admitted that he had never flown before, but he had built so many airplane models in his youth, that he knew exactly how planes were constructed and flown! “One of the few times I was nervous, was flying in those early days when an instructor explained that the wing span was 36 ft. wide, while our flight path was taking us through a set of trees only 30 ft. wide. At the very second I thought we would hit the trees, the pilot turned the plane 90 degrees sideways and we passed through the opening.”
Hugh served as an engineer in the 64th Bombardment Squadron operating in support of the campaign in Papua New Guinea. It was there that he made headlines with a news clipping from the Syracuse Herald Journal. “Syracuse Pilot Rescues Radioman Before Bombs in Wrecked Place Explode”, April 7, 1943. As much as Hugh likes to claim he only did what he was suppose to, (claiming the article was full of lies) it is a fine example of how he and his crew went beyond the call of duty at a time of war.
He flew 53 missions and would have flown more but was sent home with a medical discharge, on a hospital ship, having contracted tropical ulcers on his feet, called “jungle rot.”
His expertise and love of flying did not cease with the end of the war, as he later flew as a co-pilot for Mohawk Air and flew his own plane for many years.
After the War he went back to engineering, working for several major companies including Solvay Process Company, Crouse-Hinds, where he developed a patent for an explosion-proof electrical connector and Lockheed Martin in Smyrna, Georgia.
Hugh’s passion for music and singing began as a youngster and until recently sang in the Reform Church Choir of the Isles in Alexandria Bay. “I used to know every hymn by heart,” he exclaimed, “but today the choir sings modern church music which is not only different, but difficult.”
Judy Keeler, a long time church member, praises the Papworth’s for their commitment to the parish. “Hugh is an outstanding member and everyone appreciated not only his assistance, but his voice!” Actually at one time Hugh sang with the Tampa Opera Company. One year he realized that the Opera required special help so he bought a truck to transport opera sets to and from the venues for the next five years.
As we made our way through his file of photographs, he beamed with pride when we got to the family.
Hugh met his wife, Annie Ophelia, while in training in Florida - “She was a Dade City, Florida, girl and this was one girl I was not going to let get away.”
They married, and raised six active-and-bright children. His wife died in 1971, at 45, and two sons are also gone. He visits his four surviving children throughout the year. Hugh Jr. just retired from Anheiser Busch; Edwin (named after his grandfather) is semi-retired and lives in North Carolina; Joy is the president of an environmental services company, Smooth Energy in Illinois and she lives on Comfort Island in the summer, while Annie runs “Ophelia’s Garden Inn, a successful B & B in Syracuse, NY.
My final questions regarded his willingness to help others – Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, are well known organizations that he helped and there were several more. In 1986 when he completed work for the US Agency for International Development in West and Central Africa, he received the following commendation, “The REDSO staff and I regret very much losing you, Hugh. I doubt very much that we will ever be able to replace the broad range of skills and experience you have brought to this job. Certainly not in one person, at least…”
Yes, Hugh P. Papworth is respected far and wide. When the time came to say goodbye, I realized that he had given me a wonderful gift, too – his stories and his friendship. When leaving, I asked if he was a River Rat and he said, “Why yes - a Rat is certainly right.”