The Republican convention of July 1952 was the first televised national convention. Although my younger brother Hugh was only four years old, he sat, transfixed, for all five days. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Earl Warren, Douglas Macarthur, Robert Taft… Hugh remained a political junkie for the rest of his life, although his affiliations would change and his faith in American politics would be strained almost, but not quite, to the breaking point.
Hugh grew up and went to school mostly in Fresno, then, after high school, he went on to our father's alma mater, UC Davis, where he got a BS in political science, followed by a law degree in 1975. Hugh practiced law in places at least one-step removed from courtrooms for ten subsequent years, working in the California Legislative Council's office, then as a traveling administrative law judge, and finally with farmworkers at the Delano office of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). He would become disenchanted with the law — “at almost every level it boils down more to money than it does to justice,” he would say.
Hugh was a seeker. He studied religion and philosophy after effectively dropping out of American culture and the law in 1985 to undertake a series of months-long adventures, mostly in Mexico, South America and Europe. Hugh was multi-lingual; he was fluent in Spanish and conversational Portuguese, French and German. During his travels, he lived frugally out of his backpack — no car! — until his savings from his lawyer days finally ran out in the early 90s and he took a job as a waiter at Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park, soon rising to Food Service Manager for the entire Park, working seasonally at Yellowstone and other national parks. Seasonal labor gave him months off every year for further adventures or to take writing and philosophy courses at San Francisco State.
In the late 1990s, after our parents retired to the Mendocino Coast, Hugh returned to Mendocino County to be of help to them as they aged, and got a job as an eligibility worker in Mendocino County's Fort Bragg Social Services office.
Over the next 15 years until he officially retired in May, Hugh was steadily promoted from line eligibility work and given additional responsibilities for training new eligibility workers, reviewing and conducting welfare case appeals, developing policies and procedures for MediCal, Food Stamps and various welfare policies and programs. By the time he retired as a “senior analyst,” Hugh was the County’s point-person for Obamacare implementation. He'd declined several managerial promotions.
Around Christmas of 2013 Hugh was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Testosterone blocker injections slowed the progress of the disease somewhat, but the cancer was too far along when it was discovered to be effectively treated. He lived in my home in Boonville for the next five months as the disease took its inexorable toll. In early June, Hugh became a permanent resident of a Ukiah nursing home where he died Saturday morning, July 5th.
A lifelong San Francisco Giants fan, Hugh was very happy to see the Giants meteoric early 2014 season winning record. Thankfully, he was too sick to be disappointed when the Giants went into their collapse in early June. In prior years he would exclaim, “They just can't hit!” several times a game, assigning amusingly sarcastic nicknames to various weak Giants hitters.
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When Hugh's retirement was official in late May, his co-workers assembled a collection of tributes and testimonials and delivered it to him in his hospital bed. Hugh was always easy to know, easy to like; he wore his extensive education and experience lightly, and gave of it freely, as these excerpts indicate:
I'm going to miss your help and your laughter. … You were there when I interviewed, you were there on my first day, and you were always there when I needed your support. Thank you so so much. … You have been a teacher and an invaluable resource to us all, not to mention a good guy to work with. I wish you all the best. … You have taught me much and I have cherished every moment I have been able to spend working with you. … I feel like we will be lost without you. … I'm glad to say I worked with you so long ago on the [intake] floor. … Sad to say, we are losing your brilliant contributions. The County was lucky to have you! … You will be missed by everyone who knew you and many who never got the chance, but knew your work. … I'm already missing you, but I'm happy you're taking this big step to retirement. It was always fun to visit with you, even when you wished me to have a terrible day every day (ha ha — you know what I'm talking about). … Desfrute su tiempo libre, me amigo! Your expertise will be missed as will your humor and wit. … You will be missed by one and all! You have taught me a lot about undocs with all the knowledge you store in that wonderful mind of yours. … I already miss your great wry sense of humor, witty personality and great advice. Most of all your smile and friendship. … You can't leave! You can't leave! You are too helpful and a wealth of information. Thank you for your many years of quiet, steady efficient work. You are greatly appreciated. … Hugh: Just want to let you know that those people who said it would get easier with time? They lied! … Thank you for all your knowledge and help; I'm a better worker for it. … This isn't fair. You should have retired sooner and had a longer retirement. … I always admired your intelligence and eccentricity equally, two qualities I certainly aspire to. … It's been a great ride! I will miss our talks and interpretations of regs! GO GIANTS! … I have truly treasured our years of working together! It goes without saying that I would not be here if it wasn't for you. … You have always been the crusader for the front line. Thank you. Many times you would start a training session by discussing the difficulty of a line staff job. How comforted I was when you did that. I was sure I was the only one having trouble with the job. … I will miss your contributions to the work. But most of all I will miss who you are as a person. Thank you for all the support you have provided. … Your humor, knowledge, opinions and friendship are so missed. You were more than just a co-worker. You were my close friend and confidant. I have had so many interesting conversations with you. You really make people think. … I so enjoyed your enthusiasm and ideas for training. You were such a good trainer. People here really do miss you. … You will be greatly missed. The depth of your talent and knowledge will not be replaced soon. … How will we get by without your lovely demeanor, not to mention the espresso bars! … You have always been a wonderful trainer and I always look forward to seeing you! It's been a privilege and an honor to work with you. … I recall the days of you training the coastal eligibility workers, shop talks, and having to pull out a dictionary to look up the meanings of some of those $10 words. The coastal worker group faced a huge loss when you re-located to Ukiah. And now our division faces even greater challenges with you retiring. … I will never forget your hilarious fee-for-service rant for any and all requests. [Hugh frequently answered an office question jokingly first with something like “That’ll be $2, please.”] … We will miss your humor, your compassion and your teaching ability. Thank you for making sense of the senseless. You were always able to give a lesson that was about more than just reading aloud from the training manual. By giving us the big picture and explaining the “why” instead of just dictating the rules has helped us all to learn problem solving and to think for ourselves. It is the mark of a great teacher to give their students the skills and desire to keep learning on their own. … I don't know how many times just in the last month I said to myself or heard someone else say, “We could really use Hugh right now to help make sense of this.” You would answer and not talk down to us, making us feel like we have a friend to turn to. I guess at this point I should mention Obamacare so I can justify the time I spent on this note on my time sheet. … You are a fountain of knowledge and will be sorely missed, not just for your knowledge, but your humor as well. It was great working with you on NCAC. If it wasn't for that and your hints I might not have been promoted to the position I'm in now. … I want you to know how much I have appreciated working with you. I respect and value your knowledge and opinions. I have gained knowledge knowing you. Thank you so much for all the things you have passed on to me. Go Dodgers! (Ha!)
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Excerpts from ‘A 30th High School Reunion’ by Hugh Scaramella
Fresno, California, September 1996 — Entering the banquet room at Smugglers’ Inn on Blackstone Avenue, I was filled with emotions, and not a little trepidation. Still single and somewhat at loose ends, I was returning to my Fresno roots by attending the two-day, 30th reunion of the Hoover High class of 1966. I had no idea what to expect. … My high school years somehow got buried underneath the memory of seven rather turbulent years at UC Davis and various subsequent phases commonly known as adult life in America. … In our mobile, fast-paced, status-oriented society, we Americans seem to neglect and not do too well with roots and long-term friendships. Nevertheless, what transpired over the next two evenings was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Time after time I encountered lovely and thoughtful people who I knew and appreciated as a youth and who had completely fallen out of my human gyroscope for various reasons. Once engaged again at the reunion, it was amazing, bordering on incredulous, that after 20 or even 30 years, I fell right into serious and sometimes profound conversation without any effort or pretension. … In an age where anomie, rootlessness and fear are rampant and almost endemic, particularly in this state of California, here was a group of human souls (almost 200 the first night, 180 the second, out of a class of 380 or so) a clan, a gathering, a secular church; caring, having fun, almost like it was graduation night, 1966. … To my starry eyes at this point, we were all teenagers again, living in a never-never land where we hadn’t really grown up. And to me, this group of improbable adults will always be the teenage class of 1966, and probably that’s the way it should be. … It seemed to me that evening that high school classes instill in us Americans the tribal nature like few other institutions. We are imprinted in our youth, for better or worse; it is here we spring from, nowhere else. We are still that scrawny bunch of kids from North Fresno who opened Hoover High and did a darn good job of it. And we still are — better or worse, a promise of America. … Upon a bit more reflection, I can also say that there was a little of that mysterious power of redemption working in that Blackstone strip mall banquet hall those two nights — a redemption of faith in my childhood, peers, hometown and, yes, even the human race. Somehow I felt more “me” in those brief hours, and I am still sad that the time was so short. … And one final irony: The boy voted “most likely to succeed” (me) is currently unemployed, while most of my classmates have gone on to greater things.
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Hugh maintained contact with one of his long-time friends from his first year as a waiter in Yellowstone in 1990, a young man from Georgia named Spencer who now lives with his family in Chicago. Spencer kept up with Hugh’s worsening condition and wrote what would be his final letter to Hugh a few days ago that didn't arrive until the afternoon after Hugh’s death. Hugh never got to read it, but it captures Hugh's spirit as well as anything I could write. Maybe somewhere out there Hugh will be picking up the AVA, reading this, then grumbling about one part or another of this overly personal obituary, or telling me (again) that I had no right to use his stuff in the AVA without his permission.
“Hugh: You have been a faithful correspondent and friend to me over the years, but more than that you should know that in fact you've served, along with a handful of my other friends, as something of a moral compass. Your professional endeavors, your treading lightly on the earth in the national parks, your personal ambitions of going abroad to learn more of what's out there beyond the bubble of the United States culture, and your devotion to helping the vulnerable through your work, as well as your devotion to your parents in their final years — all these things have inspired me immensely.
“Thank you for visiting us in Chicago several times. My wife Jennifer is so glad she got to meet this mysterious ‘Hugh’ after so long and I'm glad you were able to delight my little girls, not to mention that I got to show you Wrigley Field and White Sox Park in 2012.
“Your realistic worldview, your kindness and your innate decency are no doubt an important part of the legacy you've already shared with those of us who have had the pleasure to know you. It has been an honor.”
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Remembering Hugh Scaramella
by Terry Ryder
I met Hugh Scaramella only a few months before his diagnosis of prostate cancer. We played trivia together at Lauren’s a few times. I appreciated his dry wit and was sorry that he didn’t continue as a regular player. One day his bother Mark Scaramella told me about his illness. Of course everyone who knew him was hopeful that with treatment he would recover but it didn’t go that way. First his legs got weak and he started using a walker. For a vital man of 64 this was depressing and difficult but he made do. Before too long his legs gave out and he was confined to his bed most of the time.
I began visiting him pretty regularly because I put myself in his place and thought how difficult his life was. He welcomed my visits and we spoke of many things but he tired easily. He rarely complained and was very grateful to his brother Mark for taking him in and caring for him. Mark was a steadfast caregiver undaunted by even the most unpleasant tasks. These brothers were old school in their loyalty to each other and it was heartening to see.
Eventually a complicated bedsore and an inability to move at all below the waist made it necessary for him to move to a skilled nursing facility in Ukiah. This was hard on everyone. Although there were many kind people helping him there Hugh was an extremely private person and depending so much on the kindness of strangers was very, very hard. He was however always courteous and cooperative to a fault with everyone who assisted him.
This gets me to my main thought about Hugh. He was above all a dignified man — not in a stuffy and false way but with deep decency. Toward the end he actually told us he was sorry it was taking him so long to die. His quiet dignity in the face of unbearable hardship and pain rocked me to my core. In the end he kept saying over and over “Make me bigger…more open.” We all had different ideas about what he meant by this but for me he was already as “Big” as you can get and completely “Open.” Thank you Hugh for being my friend. I really miss you and I will never forget you.
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Hugh Scaramella is survived by his brother Mark, various distant relations around the County, and his two cats, Miss Bob and Newman. I am particularly grateful for the many hours that Terry Ryder, Bob Sites, David Severn, and Will Parrish spent at Hugh's bedside and helping with transportation. Their presence was a great comfort to Hugh. At his request there will be no services. Donations can be made in his name to the Mendocino Cancer Resource Center, 590 So. Dora St., Ukiah, CA 95482.