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Editor’s note: This North Carolinian of Note profile was produced by students in Dean Emeritus Richard Cole’s feature writing class in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The profiles were distributed by the North Carolina Press Foundation to member newspapers. For reprint information, contact email@example.com.
By Cammie Bellamy
On a crisp Chapel Hill day in autumn 1949, Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice takes the field at Kenan Stadium.
Riotous fans cheer as Justice leads the football team past the marching band and into the sun. A large, white number 22 shines on his chest.
With a comfortable number of wins under its belt, the team is surely bowl-bound. Its players are stars.
On the sidelines stands a less-conspicuous figure, a soft-spoken young man partially hidden under the brim of a hat and wielding a large camera.
The young man is Hugh Morton, who made a name for himself photographing life at UNC, after arriving there as a freshman in 1940.
Born in Wilmington in 1921, Morton spent his entire life exploring the corners of his home state. At UNC, he began his career as a photojournalist snapping shots for his school’s newspaper, yearbook and magazine, The Daily Tar Heel, the Yackety Yack yearbook and the old Tar an’ Feathers.
During World War II, he took photos in the Pacific for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. While serving in the military, he suffered injuries from a Japanese explosive and earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
After returning to North Carolina, Morton spent years documenting life, culture, politics and sports throughout the state. But in 1952, the course of his life and his work as a photographer shifted west. He was drawn toward a mountain property he inherited from his grandfather, Hugh MacRae.
The site where Morton would spend much of his life was aptly named Grandfather Mountain. Located about 20 miles southwest of Boone in western North Carolina, the mountain was named “Grandfather” for its distinctive rock cliffs, which early settlers of the region thought resembled the face of an old man.
After acquiring the site, at the mile-high mark on the mountain, Morton set about building a swinging bridge to bring in tourists. As years passed, he established a nature preserve, museum and small zoo that became home to many injured animals and native species.
Photos on Grandfather Mountain’s website show cliffs, animals and Morton with his camera.
Morton spent much of his later life in the public eye, serving for a year as president of the UNC General Alumni Association and running briefly for governor in 1972. But, he devoted most of his time to his great passion, photographing North Carolina and his own Grandfather Mountain.
Though he died in 2006, his work lives on at his alma mater, and his legacy persists as a booster of his native state.
Archiving Morton’s photographs
Stephen Fletcher, a photographic archivist with the North Carolina Collection at UNC’s Wilson Library, experiences Morton’s legacy every day. He has spent the years since Morton’s death preserving his prolific body of work for future generations. Morton left more than 250,000 photographic negatives to Wilson Library, after gentle prodding to do so by his close friend, well-known UNC system president, Dr. Bill Friday.
“Shortly before his death, we met with Morton’s family and had a chance to see his photographic collection for the first time,” Fletcher said. “The collection was disorganized.”
He said the best description came from Morton’s daughter, “Hugh was more interested in the photo he was about to take than the one he had just taken.”
The photo collection was vast, requiring two trips and four full-sized vans to get the photos to Chapel Hill’s library from the Morton family home in Linville in the North Carolina mountains.
Fletcher took on the monumental task of identifying and archiving the photos for the library, an effort that has added a jewel to its collection.
“There are so many photos that could be my favorite,” Fletcher said. “If I gave you an answer today, the answer I give tomorrow might be different.”
Today, Fletcher runs a blog on the Hugh Morton collection called “A View to Hugh” at www.lib.unc.edu/blogs/morton.
Appreciating Morton, his work and influence
Alumni love the collection, Fletcher said. He remembers giving two talks at senior centers throughout the last few years on Morton and the collection.
He started both talks by asking who in the room had heard of Morton. Nearly every hand in the room shot up. Then he modified his question: “But who here actually knew Hugh?” He was surprised to see most hands stayed up.
Jock Lauterer, lecturer in UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, experienced Morton’s friendliness firsthand. Lauterer says Morton forever changed the way photojournalism is understood at UNC and throughout the state.
While attending football game at Kenan Stadium in the 1950’s, Lauterer noticed Morton standing on the sidelines, barely visible behind an enormous camera.
“He looked like the stereotypical press photographer with his hat on,” Lauterer said.
Morton’s archived photos include images taken at UNC and from throughout the state.
“He was more than a good photographer; he photographed the breadth of North Carolina history, politics, sports, wildlife, public figures and culture,” Lauterer said.
“As a photographer,” Lauterer said, “I would call Hugh Morton ‘Mr. Photography of North Carolina’.”
Morton served as Lauterer’s mentor and role model.
“When I was thinking about becoming a photographer, Morton was a shining example. Doors were open to him; he got to go to cool places. I said, ‘That’s the life for me!’”
UNC preserves Morton’s legacy. Like the mountain he loved, Morton stands tall in North Carolina.