For many in the Kent County arts community over the last five decades, one name has resonated across stages, schools, street parades, and coffee houses: Tom McHugh.
From his early life as a professor at Washington College in the late 60s and early 1970s, through his commuting years to the Eastern Shore from his tenured position at Vassar College, and finally, in his permanent return in retirement, Tom’s commitment to arts and education in Kent County has been transformational for many and inspiring for all. His remarkable legacy is important to acknowledge as our community grieves his recent passing.
From his difficult childhood years in Philadelphia, Tom found that music, and the creation of it, provided an indispensable escape from daily challenges. Thanks to a scholarship from Philly’s Girard College, created in the late 19th Century as a school for the city’s neglected but promising boys, Tom went on to pursue a distinguished academic career, garnering many awards, and traveling to Hungary as a Fulbright Scholar before starting his “new career” as an arts entrepreneur and troubadour.
When looking back, it seems like Tom could only have come from this remarkable background. The performer, the lover of all sorts of music and genres, the Irish storyteller, the critical thinker, the savvy bureaucrat, the gifted fundraiser, the (barely)-closeted comedian, and the believer in great, small causes, all led to the creation of Tom McHugh.
No doubt Tom’s lasting legacy for us in Kent County will be the Mainstay. Given the opportunity to program as only he could, Tom merged his passion for jazz, blues, folk, gospel, Celtic, and spoken word into a small, remote, rural Main Street performance space that became one of hottest venues in the Mid-Atlantic.
At the heart of this work was Tom’s passion for education. For all the fantastic range of musical talent that Tom brought to Rock Hall, including his own, it’s fair to say that his primary goal was to expand his audience’s range of appreciation. From one weekend to the next at the Mainstay, he would delight in mixing genres, including classical, to give his audience the broadest exposure to music.
Part of that educational mission was to showcase Kent County’s uniquely lopsided number of talented musicians and singers. During his lifetime, he brought to the stage, sometimes for the first time, the brilliance of Karen Somerville, Sue Matthews, Joe Holt, Dick Durham, Meredith Davies Hadaway, Nevin Dawson, and dozens of others, including promising young people from Kent County High School. In his off-hours, he could be found in the local elementary schools, playing his banjo for sing-alongs, or leading a kazoo orchestra.
This legacy comes to mind frequently as the Chestertown Spy maintains its mission of celebrating the arts. From its earliest days, Tom was our directional guide as we began to profile the region’s pool of phenomenal performers. And during these consultations, it was impossible to ignore his unabashed cheerleading.
Possessing an Irish instinct to turn his praise for these artists into a form of poetry, Tom literally set the stage for his performers to find their personal best at Mainstay concerts. Indeed, for some, the McHugh introduction alone was worth the drive to Rock Hall.
There is no doubt others in the arts community will find ways to honor and continue Tom’s legacy. But it was my luck to videotape his last introduction at the Mainstay some six years ago. And Tom, being Tom, left the stage with a poem. The title: “We Share 60 Percent of our DNA with a Banana.”
Only Tom could get away with that.
Dave Wheelan is the founder and executive editor of the Chestertown Spy.