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Remembering Hugh McCullum

Former Observer editor was a story in and of himself — a densely packed narrative with many twists and turns

By David Wilson

I have never heard more stories about one person than I did earlier this autumn as word spread that Hugh McCullum had died. Hugh hired me when he was editor of this magazine in the 1980s. From the day I met him to the last time I saw him, I admired him enormously. As the phone lines hummed following his death, I found myself telling — no, needing to tell — a few McCullum stories of my own. It was as if this outpouring of stories was a way for those of us who knew him to come to grips with the difficult idea that death could claim someone who was larger than life. The stories were death defying.

It was all very appropriate. Hugh devoted his life to telling stories — most often stories no one else would tell — and did so masterfully. But more fundamentally, Hugh was a story. A long, far-flung, complex, densely packed narrative with plot turns and characters that had to be real because no one could ever invent them.

If there was a single theme that ran through the McCullum narrative, it was his empathy for the marginalized, coupled with his disdain for bullies and the self-important. Whether it was Biafra in the 1960s, Northern Canada in the ’70s, Central America or Asia in the ’80s, Africa and the Middle East in the ’90s and beyond, Hugh’s heart beat in time with those on the edges or at the bottom. He had no tolerance for people who puffed themselves up, who built empires on the misery of others, who were indifferent to suffering.

Hugh was a preacher’s son. Although he could hardly be described as pious, I believe his passion for justice came from someplace deep and intensely religious. It was not something he talked about much, but it was there. He had a calling, and it drove him. He was drawn to people like Desmond Tutu and Oscar Romero not because they were easy heroes but because he understood the call they heard. They spoke the same language.

As an editor, Hugh tended to shoot from the hip; passionate people often do. Sometimes things got complicated, but it was easy to forgive him because he was so committed to what he was doing, so driven. I was young and inexperienced when he hired me, and I confess to being awestruck by the depth and scope of his knowledge, and by the sheer volume of his accomplishments. I’m a lot older now, and I’m still awestruck.

I always feel a little sad when I come to the end of a really good story. I don’t want it to be over. I’m sad that the Hugh McCullum story has drawn to a close. I wish it could last for a few more chapters. But Hugh was always the author of his own narrative; if, when he put down his pen for the last time, he was satisfied that he had accomplished some of what he had been called to do, I am happy for him.

• Visuals editor Fran Oliver worked with three editors, including Hugh McCullum, during her 25 years at The Observer, so her retirement at the end of this month marks a milestone. Working mostly behind the scenes, Fran has been a model of dedication, persistence and grace under fire. Anyone who ever collaborated with her has learned something about integrity in the process. She’s retiring at the top of her game, and on behalf of her friends past and present at The Observer, I wish Fran the very best. It has been a privilege to work with her.
Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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