Thomas William Ford Hughes died April 18 following a hard fought battle with cancer — the bad kind, the kind that you don’t get a lot of time with. Tom prevailed, insofar as you can with these things, and made it nearly three years. He clawed his way back to health and spent every minute he could with his family. He took his beloved grandsons to Disney World for the first time only the month before. For a lot of these last years, Tom’s fortitude — and stubbornness — were on full display. For someone so robust, this end came too soon. But we can grieve his loss and also acknowledge that Tom’s was a long life — a long life well lived.
Tom’s life began on April 7, 1951 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where he was born the third child of Mary Eleanor (‘Nanny’) and John (‘Pop’). By all accounts he was a bit of a terror. But he was also clean cut with a beloved Irish Setter, Shane, and an Eagle Scout who carried his experiences with Boy Scout Troop 35 through the rest of his days. He played football and particularly loved lacrosse first at the McDonough School and then Ohio Wesleyan University. He played hard enough that he broke his collarbone. He spent his summers on the working crew (not the scientific staff, he’d be clear) at the University of Michigan Biological Station and on Indian River with the family.
He met his future wife, Sally Ann Milbourne, in college. She wasn’t quite ready for that kind of commitment though, so he joined the United States Marine Corps. He was commissioned as an Officer in 1973 in Quantico, Virginia and proceeded to earn the family title “Tommy Tanker” at the (US Army) Armor School at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He was an absolute terror for his Army instructors — most notoriously rolling a fifty ton main battle tank on its side in the middle of an exercise.
Tom did marry Sally. As the story goes, his proposal was in a car on Pikes Peak in Colorado where he asked simply if he should wear his Marine Corps Dress Blues for their wedding (which he obviously did — the stories are less clear on whether Sally’s ‘yes’ was in response to the specific question or the implied one). After some storied time living together in a trailer on the beach while Tom was stationed at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, Tom transitioned to the beginning of a long career at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1977 that took him and his new family from North Carolina to Ohio to Massachusetts, back to North Carolina, and finally, again, to Ohio. In North Carolina (the first time), Tom, Sally, and an Irish Setter dubbed Heathen (‘Heath’) were joined by sons Nathan (1981) and Patrick (1982).
His sons were quickly indoctrinated in important family traditions such as only very brief, scheduled stops on roadtrips where money spent on gasoline is dutifully recorded on a printed spreadsheet; when Sally wanted the family to participate in local culture (namely the Pilgrim Procession in Plymouth, Massachusetts), you shut up and did it; and ensuring that summers and other holidays were spent with family. Heath passed and a Gordon Setter named Chester (a slobbery terror in his own right) took over supervision of the family.
By Ohio (the second time), Tom and Boy Scouts came to the fore. He found the local Troop 511 wanting by Troop 35 standards, so he quietly took over and transformed it into a well oiled machine that supported one outing per month and one ‘high adventure’ trip each summer. But that was just organizational. His real superpower was naturally being a collaborative leader and a father figure to an entire generation of scouts. His capacity for compassion and empathy was truly limitless. His sons would both go on to earn the rank of Eagle Scout, as would a number of others who might not have without his mentorship.
He also befriended neighbors Robert and Missy Sorrell when they moved in to an adjacent property up the hill. It was a friendship more consequential than anyone knew at the time, for Sally was afflicted with the worst kind of Multiple Sclerosis just as their sons were leaving home. Tom’s commitment to Sally over the subsequent decade of unrelentingly increasing struggle is legend. And without looking closely, you’d never know it’s toll on him — his stubbornness had a stoicism to it. But he also had a ‘bat signal’ with his back porch light for Robert to join with bourbon after a particularly rough day. And his routine came to include the boat crew, a group of lifelong friends that met regularly first in Robert’s basement.
Sally’s passing in 2008 was followed by a renewal with the marriage of Tom’s youngest son (now a commissioned Marine Corps Second Lieutenant in his own right) the following year. The year after that, Tom truly had a second life with his marriage to Constance (‘Connie’) Mapes and his retirement. Technically, Tom took a while to actually retire, doing consulting work for many years. (He also made sure he and Connie spent more than 183 days per year in the state of Florida for tax purposes.) But he fully transitioned to focusing on the things that really matter — family and friends. This sounds simple, but he married into a family of hundreds and was immediately genuinely engaged with and supportive of all of them. And he also supported his own niece, Ali, through her own struggles.
In 2018, Tom became a grandfather and, well, it suited him. His parents, Nanny and Pop, were a big act to follow. They’d set up and cultivated a large family that stuck together. Tom continued to be that glue, naturally but perhaps also almost subconsciously. And he leaves us with a much larger family and an indelible imprint that everyone who knew him will work to convey to future generations — the very definition of a life well lived.
He is survived by his simply incalculable imprint on this world as well as his wife; brothers and sister; sons; and grandsons. A memorial service will be held at St Joseph Church of North Bend, Ohio (where Tom and Connie were married) at 9:30am on Saturday, May 6 with interment following the service at St. John the Baptist Cemetery in Harrison, Ohio. In lieu of flowers or gifts, please consider donations in honor of Tom to the Philmont Scout Ranch (
) or the American Cancer Society (