Bob Hughes, who served as the Oak Bluffs postmaster for 25 years, spent much of his retirement crafting letters that he often mailed out in the hundreds.
He wrote about his favorite flowers, how he helped create a plaque for an extinct bird, or the time he met the inventor of basketball. And throughout his letters, one thing was clear: He wanted to pass on his memories of his beloved Martha’s Vineyard, what he called the “Isle of Dreams.”
Mr. Hughes, who also was a former high school teacher, died of myelodysplastic syndrome Nov. 2 at the Henrietta Brewer House, an assisted-living facility in Vineyard Haven. He was 98 and had lived in Oak Bluffs nearly all his life.
When Mr. Hughes retired, he told The Vineyard Gazette that although his Post Office was not perfect, “it is still the best in the world and comes through 98 percent of the time.” He said his motto was to “give the customers prompt and courteous service,” and he was particularly proud that his office had mailboxes for his two blind customers.
John Hughes of Vineyard Haven said his brother managed the Post Office in an orderly fashion that recalled his World War II service in the Navy.
“He ran it as he ran his ship,” John. “Everything was supposed to be nice and smooth, and it was.”
Richard Blankenship, a nephew of Mr. Hughes, said his uncle was highly intelligent. Mr. Hughes graduated from high school at 16 and completed his undergraduate degree at Springfield College by the time he was 19.
Blankenship, who also is from Oak Bluffs, said his uncle was an easygoing man known to all on Martha’s Vineyard. “He was just an island character,” Blankenship said.
Mr. Hughes was born in Oak Bluffs, and his mother always called him “a little firecracker” because his birthday was the Fourth of July.
He graduated in 1931 from what was then Oak Bluffs High School and from Springfield College in 1935. Mr. Hughes also earned a master’s degree from Boston University.
While at Springfield College, Mr. Hughes met James Naismith, an instructor at the school who invented the sport of basketball in 1891. During his college years, Mr. Hughes was an All-American soccer goalie.
After graduating, Mr. Hughes returned to Oak Bluffs High School, where he taught science and math. He taught his younger brother John, and insisted that he call him Mr. Hughes, even outside of the classroom. John, who was nine years younger, said calling his brother — who still lived at home — Mr. Hughes took some getting used to.
His brother was amazing teacher, John said, and was well known for his clever mnemonic devices — tricks for improving memory and retaining information.
A grandniece, Beth O’Connor of Oak Bluffs, said Mr. Hughes was a giving person who had no tolerance for racism.
Once while he was teaching high school, Mr. Hughes took a class on a trip to Washington, D.C., where a hotel said a black student in the group could not stay there. Mr. Hughes, she said, insisted that the student stay in the hotel with the group, and the hotel staff relented.
“He had a heart of gold and he was very open-minded to anything,” O’Connor said.
In June 1938, Mr. Hughes married Ruth Blankenship, who had been his girlfriend since the seventh grade. She died in December 2007.
During World War II, Mr. Hughes served in the Navy as a first lieutenant, gunnery officer, and executive officer in the Pacific theater of operations. He helped found the Martha’s Vineyard Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9261 and was a past commander.
O’Connor said Mr. Hughes and his wife loved children. When going to the beach, the couple handed out snacks to children and helped them hunt for sand crabs. If beachgoers were stung by jellyfish, Mr. Hughes offered as a treatment spices he kept handy, which he said would help soothe the pain.
In July 1953, Mr. Hughes left his teaching job to become the postmaster. An avid gardener, he often decorated the Post Office with flowers. He retired in February 1978.
During his retirement, Mr. Hughes petitioned the historical society to commission a memorial plaque for the heath hen, a bird that became extinct in the 1930s, with the last one living on Martha’s Vineyard. A clam digger, he also loved to go quahogging and scalloping.
O’Connor said that when she was a child, she was always able to confide in her great-uncle.
“I talked to him about everything and anything,” she said. “I would say it as it was.”
A service has been held for Mr. Hughes, who left no immediate family.
O’Connor said that as she grew older, she began to appreciate his letters more. As he once did, she now tries to pen notes to her friends on a frequent basis.
John said his brother’s letters were considered collector’s items and that many people were eager to see what he wrote next.
“He was a great human being, and very modest, and he was well respected by many, many people,” Hughes said. “We are going to miss his letters.”
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