By MADDY VITALE
As police officers stood at attention at the door of the Ocean City Tabernacle, mourners filed in Sunday afternoon to honor and remember a political icon, William J. Hughes, who passed away on Oct. 30 at his Ocean City home at 87.
A collage of photos of Hughes, a former 10-term Democratic congressman and a U.S. Ambassador to Panama, told a story not only of a political giant who was lauded for his ability to work with both sides of the aisle, but also of a devoted husband to wife Nancy, who passed away in January 2018, and patriarch to his children and grandchildren.
For some, they knew Hughes, who went by Bill, for his contributions in the political arena and to environmental endeavors. Others knew him as an active member of the community, who, along with his wife, contributed to the arts.
The viewing for Hughes included his flag-draped casket. Floral arrangements lined the front of the receiving line.
His children warmly greeted mourners who came to pay their respects, in a line that flowed to the back of the Tabernacle.
“He is with mom now,” daughter Tama Hughes said.
Another daughter, Lynne Hughes, said of her parents, “They gave us a great life.”
Photos of family get-togethers, vacations and political events flashed on screens in the Tabernacle and in the entrance of the hall.
One trip showed Bill and Nancy standing in front of the Capitol building. Another appeared to be at a faraway exotic vacation place.
Other photos of the couple, who were married in 1956, showed them later in life surrounded by their children and grandchildren. In all of them, they were smiling.
The contributions made by Bill and Nancy to their community and to South Jersey were very important to them, friends and family said.
They were benefactors to the arts and Ocean City High School, the main donors of the high school’s Bill and Nancy Hughes Performing Arts Center.
The FAA Technical Center next to Atlantic City International Airport was re-named the William J. Hughes Technical Center. Stockton University includes the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, which was launched in 2010.
Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian, whose father, Roy Gillian, was good friends with Hughes, said it was hard to put his feelings into words.
He said with Bill Hughes’ passing after Nancy, Ocean City has lost two great people.
“He created a legacy. He was a true statesman,” Gillian said. “There are people in this world you cannot replace. Bill and Nancy were those people. They are two people who helped shape Ocean City into what it is today. I have been blessed to have known both of them.”
Gillian remarked that his fond memories of Bill Hughes go as far back to when Gillian was a child. His father Roy Gillian knew him very well.
“They knew each other well and I always looked up to him,” Gillian said. “He was my mentor.”
Former Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo, who was a congressman for 24 years and succeeded Hughes in office, knew Hughes since the 1980s.
He spoke of the late congressman’s contributions on Oct. 31, summing up what Hughes was best known for.
“He was an incredible public servant who paid close attention to South Jersey, not only as a member of Congress, but also in terms of the community,” LoBiondo said. “I know he was involved in many activities in South Jersey and has impacted the lives of many people for years to come. Bill really demonstrated that when you take that oath of office you represent the entire system.”
Over the years, although LoBiondo and Hughes were from different political parties, it didn’t seem to matter when it came down to what was right for South Jersey, LoBiondo recalled.
Born in Salem in 1932, Hughes graduated from Penns Grove High School, Rutgers University and Rutgers Law School (1958). He was admitted to the New Jersey Bar the following year and began practicing in Ocean City, where he settled with his wife and the couple raised their four children.
Hughes worked in the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, rising to the position of First Assistant Prosecutor.
His political career began in 1970 when he was defeated by Charles W. Sandman, Jr. for a seat in New Jersey’s Second Congressional District. In 1974, he took on Sandman again, this time winning and beginning a run of ten consecutive terms.
His legislative accomplishments included a bill that increased the size of the U.S. Coast Guard and a forfeiture law to seize the assets of drug sales from dealers, including money, airplanes, boats and vehicles. He was also a champion of gun control and border protection, among other initiatives.
In 1995, Hughes was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as Ambassador to Panama and was confirmed later the same year.
In addition to Tama Hughes and Lynne Hughes, Bill and Nancy Hughes are survived by two other children, Barbara Ann Sullivan and William J. Hughes Jr., 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Visitation continues from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Monday at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church at 30th Street and Bay Avenue. The funeral service will follow at 11 a.m. The bridges along Ocean City’s Route 52 causeway will be lit red, white and blue in Hughes’ honor.