Morton, Hugh M.

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Hugh MacRae Morton (1921-2006), influential North Carolina businessman, promoter, public servant, and photographer, was born on 19 February 1921 in Wilmington, N.C., to Julian Walker and Agnes MacRae Morton (daughter of Wilmington businessman Hugh MacRae). While growing up in Wilmington, Morton, along with his sister Agnes and brothers Julian Jr. and Thomas L., spent his summers at Grandfather Mountain near Linville, N.C., which had been owned by their grandfather MacRae since 1885. Morton attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., and enrolled at the University of North Carolina in 1939. On 8 December 1945, he married Julia Taylor of Greensboro, N.C. They had four children: Julia MacRae Morton, Hugh Morton Jr. (d. 1996), James M. Morton, and Catherine W. Morton, and two grandsons: Hugh MacRae ( Crae ) Morton III, and Jack Morton.

Morton’s photographic career started at an early age. His first exposure to camera work was at summer camp, Camp Yonahnoka, near Grandfather Mountain. He took the camp photography course his first year there; when he returned for his second year, he was asked to teach the course, which he did for the next five summers. In 1935, when Morton was only 14, he published his first photograph in Time Magazine (a golf scene for a North Carolina tourism ad).

While a student at the University of North Carolina, from 1939 to 1942, Morton served on the photo staff for numerous campus publications, including the Daily Tar Heel, Yackety Yack, the Buccaneer, and its successor Tar N’ Feathers . Among Morton’s favorite photo subjects during this time were the big bands and jazz performers that made appearances at the University of North Carolina and at other locations on the east coast, including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, and others. (The majority of Morton’s early jazz negatives were lost in a house fire, but a small selection remains in the collection). Morton retained a close connection with the University of North Carolina throughout his life, frequently photographing sporting and other events, and maintaining friendships with several University administrators including William Friday and C.D. Spangler.

In 1942, Morton cut short his college career to volunteer for military service in World War II. Assigned to the United States Army’s 161st Signal Photo Company, he served not as a still photographer (as he had intended), but was instead trained as a combat newsreel cameraman and sent to the South Pacific. During the next three years, he island-hopped, recording combat action from Bougainville to Luzon and capturing still images of his fellow soldiers, Pacific Island indigenous peoples and scenery, as well as well-known personalities, like General Douglas MacArthur and then-USO performer Bob Hope. In 1945, while filming American infantrymen battling their way up a high bank overlooking Philippine Highway 5, he walked into a Japanese booby-trap. He was discharged because of his injuries and later received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his military photography.

Morton continued to take photographs after returning to North Carolina in 1945, going to work initially for the University of North Carolina Sports Information Director Jake Wade. Over the following decades, he did contract jobs and freelance work for many North Carolina newspapers including the Greensboro Daily News, the Raleigh News and Observer, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Twin City Sentinel, the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte News . Publicist Bill Sharpe of the North Carolina Department of Travel and Tourism got Morton interested in taking pictures of and for his home state; many of those pictures appeared in publications, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated . Morton photographs have appeared on the cover of The State magazine (now Our State ) dozens of times. While Morton came to be known as North Carolina’s unofficial state photographer, his photography was not limited to the Tar Heel state. Throughout his life, Morton took numerous business and vacation trips, not only within the continental United States, but also to Alaska, Hawaii, various European locations, Australia and New Zealand, and Israel, always with his cameras packed.

While still in his twenties, Morton became established as a player in state politics and the tourism industry. He helped conceive and served as the first president of the Azalea Festival in Wilmington (1948) and remained a central figure in the very popular event for decades afterwards. From 1951 to 1961, Morton served as a member of the North Carolina Board of Conservation and Development under governors W. Kerr Scott, William B. Umstead, and Luther H. Hodges. He was Publicity Director for Hodges’s 1956 gubernatorial campaign and, under Governor Hodges, served as the chair of the State Advertising Committee. Morton developed a close relationship with Hodges and successive Democratic governors, including Terry Sanford, Dan K. Moore, and James B. Hunt Jr. In 1971-1972, Morton mounted his own short-lived campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, but pulled out due to lack of funds. Governor Hodges recruited Morton in 1960 to spearhead the ultimately successful campaign to preserve the battleship USS North Carolina as a memorial to World War II veterans; Morton was instrumental in raising funds to bring the North Carolina to Wilmington and served as the first president of the USS Battleship North Carolina Commission. From 1981 to 1999, he dedicated himself to another high-profile North Carolina landmark as organizer and chair of the Save Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Committee.

Officially inheriting Grandfather Mountain in 1952, Hugh Morton endeavored to develop it into a premiere tourist attraction. He extended an existing toll road to the Mountain’s ridgeline, where a visitors center, parking lot, and a new Mile High Swinging Bridge were constructed to give visitors ultimate access to the area’s panoramic views. Annual events were created and expanded to draw additional crowds. The Singing on the Mountain outdoor traditional/gospel music festival, in existence since the 1920s, became increasingly commercialized and began to feature celebrities and Morton friends Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Johnny Cash, Arthur Smith, and others. Intrigued by the MacRae family’s Scottish heritage, Hugh Morton’s mother Agnes MacRae Morton joined with Donald McDonald to found the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in 1956, a highly-attended festival featuring traditional dance, music, athletic events, crafts, and a gathering of the clans. Both the Highland Games and the Sing went on to attract worldwide attention and attendance. Hugh Morton also pioneered smaller-scale events at Grandfather, including a Sports Car Hill Climb, kite-flying contests, and Camera Clinics and Nature Photography weekends. He would also often play host to gatherings of Atlantic Coast Conference football and basketball coaches as well as a group of North Carolina-friendly national media known as the Honorary Tar Heels.

From 1974 into the 1980s, Grandfather Mountain was well known as a mecca for hang gliders, who would launch from a platform at the top of the mountain, near the Mile High Swinging Bridge. Professional hang gliding pilots gave regular demonstrations and competitions including the United States Open Tournament and the International Masters of Hang Gliding Championship were hosted there. Hugh Morton was fascinated by the sport, even occasionally participating in it; he shot countless still images and several award-winning motion picture films featuring the pilots at Grandfather.

Hugh Morton’s appreciation of nature and native wildlife is illustrated through his often-published photographs of plants, animals, waterfalls, mountain overlooks, beaches, and other scenic views; his filmmaking (including the Richard Evans Younger Wildlife Artist series and Wild Turkeys in the North Carolina Mountains ); and his actions with regard to conservation at Grandfather. Morton conceived and marketed Grandfather Mountain as a place where tourists could experience and appreciate nature up-close, thus indirectly encouraging public support for wilderness conservation. As part of a 1967-1968 project with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, Mildred the Bear was brought to Grandfather and quickly became a popular attraction and mascot. Environmental habitats for wildlife at Grandfather were eventually expanded to include cougars, river otters, bald eagles, and white-tailed deer, in addition to black bears. A small wildlife museum in the 1961 visitors center highlighting local native plants and minerals was expanded and given its own building, the Nature Museum, which opened in 1990.

Morton’s environmental work peaked in the late 1980s and 1990s. As chair of WNC Tomorrow, he led the 1983 effort to pass the Ridge Law, which limited development above the ridgeline. He developed easement agreements with the North Carolina Nature Conservancy and partnered with the United Nations’ Southern Appalachia Man and the Biosphere Cooperative to protect large areas of Grandfather Mountain from development. In 1995, Morton joined the fight to protect North Carolina against air pollution and acid rain, most notably by photographing and producing the PBS documentary The Search for Clean Air, narrated by Walter Cronkite. As chair of the Year of the Mountains Commission in 1995-1996, Morton led efforts to get land donations and conservation easements along the Blue Ridge Parkway and to eliminate the practice of straight piping sewage into mountain streams. In fall 2008, two years after Morton’s death, his heirs took additional steps to preserve Grandfather by transferring ownership to a not-for-profit company and selling lands and easements to the state of North Carolina. This land became North Carolina's 34th state park.

As some historians have noted, while Morton was working to preserve the natural environment at Grandfather, he and his family were also profiting from it, in part by developing areas surrounding the Mountain. In 1966, Morton created Grandfather Mountain Lake by damming streams leading into a valley south of the Mountain, then established a housing development, in which he and his family settled permanently as of 1974. Meanwhile, also in the 1960s, Morton’s sister Agnes Morton Cocke Woodruff spearheaded the design and development of the expansive Grandfather Golf and Country Club on the western slope, with Hugh Morton as a major investor. The tension between conservation and commercialism is perhaps best illustrated by Morton’s long-running conflict with the National Park Service over the proposed high route for construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Grandfather. Morton argued tenaciously against the high route, appealing to anti-bureaucratic public sentiment and citing the environmental and aesthetic damage the construction would cause, while failing to mention existing and ongoing development at Grandfather he had initiated himself. The dispute was eventually settled with a compromise middle route and, the early 1980s, construction of the Linn Cove Viaduct suspension bridge, which would become a favorite photographic subject for Morton.

Another of Morton’s photographic passions throughout his life was sports, particularly at the University of North Carolina. His 1940s and 1950s photographs of football hero, and lifelong Morton friend, Charlie Choo Choo Justice have been widely published, as have many images he took during the Dean Smith coaching era of men’s basketball, most notably of the 1982 NCAA Championship team, which featured Michael Jordan and James Worthy. Into his eighties, Morton was a well-known fixture on the sidelines of Kenan Stadium and courtside in Woollen, Carmichael, and the Dean Smith Center.

Some of the additional state organizations to which Morton offered his time and expertise over the years included the Blue Ridge Parkway Association, the Travel Council of North Carolina, the Southern Highlands Attractions Association, the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation, and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. He was board member, 1959-1998, and chair of the Carolina Motor Club and served as state chair to raise funds for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in 1964.

One of the many titles bestowed on Hugh Morton over the years is the father of North Carolina photojournalism education. He was a charter member of the National Press Photographers Association and president of the Carolinas Press Photographers Association in 1949, and a founder and the first chair, 1950-1965, of the Southern Short Course in Press Photography (now known as the Southern Short Course in News Photography). In 2006, he was honored with the Hugh Morton Distinguished Professorship in Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Among numerous additional honors Morton received was the 1983 North Carolina Award for public service; being named one of the Top 20 Tourism Leaders of the 20th Century by Appalachian State University; Kodak's Award for Excellence in Photography in 1989; the Theodore Roosevelt Award for Conservation in 1990; the North Caroliniana Society Award in 1996; and as the first inductee into the newly formed North Carolina Tourism Hall of Fame in 2006.

Morton was the author of two books featuring his photography that were published by the University of North Carolina Press: Hugh Morton's North Carolina (2003) and Hugh Morton: North Carolina Photographer (2006). He was co-author/photographer of Making A Difference In North Carolina with Ed Rankin (1988) and The ACC Basketball Tournament Classic with Smith Barrier (1981). Among numerous filmmaking projects, Morton was photographer/producer of eight films that won CINE's highest award, the Golden Award, for sports and nature films. These titles included The Hawk and John McNeely, Masters of Hang Gliding, and The Highland Games at Grandfather .

A common theme among all of Hugh Morton’s many involvements was his effective mobilization of photography to support his endeavors. Whether luring tourists with the stunning views at Grandfather Mountain, illustrating the damaging effects of air pollution, tracking coastal erosion around the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, or demonstrating the athleticism of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill men’s basketball team, he had a ready store of dramatic and technically proficient images at hand to support his case. He was known for his willingness to go to great lengths and to invest great amounts of time to achieve what he considered the perfect shot. Likewise, he did not limit himself to any particular photographic format, shooting both still and moving images, in black-and-white and color, on both negative and transparency stock in several different sizes.

Morton’s status and connections gave him remarkable access to noteworthy people and events, all of which he documented with his cameras. At the same time, Morton seldom passed up anything he deemed photo-worthy, whether it was a hotel fire, a musical performance, a farmer tending his fields, or the sunlight hitting the side of a mountain in just a certain way. If such moments were not naturally occurring, he would create them, through the strategic placement of objects, animals, or models (often his family), or with some colorful foliage he found elsewhere and inserted into the frame. This combination of the high-profile and the everyday makes Morton’s portfolio an extremely varied and rich photographic record of North Carolina’s 20th-century history.

Hugh Morton remained active in photography and public service until shortly before his death of cancer on 1 June 2006.

From the guide to the Hugh Morton Photographs and Films,  , late 1920s-2006, (bulk 1940s-1990s), (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. North Carolina Collection.)

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creatorOf Hugh Morton Photographs and Films,  , late 1920s-2006, (bulk 1940s-1990s) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. North Carolina Collection.
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