Hugh Willoughby, 2003 Distinguished Naturalist

Hugh Willoughby

Mention Hugh Willoughby’s name to anyone in Rhode Island with an interest in natural history, and they will likely respond, “I know Hugh. He’s been a good friend of mine for years. He’s the one who got me interested in….” That interest might be birds, dragonflies, mammals, wildflowers, geology, or any one of the many areas of Hugh’s expertise. Hugh’s passion for the natural world is contagious, and that, along with his wonderful sense of humor, is his trademark.

Hugh has always been a teacher. He considers himself fortunate to have had so many outstanding students over the years, and he measures his good fortune by the number of his students who have gone on to pursue successful careers in the natural sciences. He humbly says that his only claim to legitimacy as a Distinguished Naturalist is that he has introduced scores of people to an interest in the natural world. “So many folks just never seem to notice this world until some fascinating facets have been pointed out to them,” Hugh notes. That introduction has often been enough to kindle a lifelong interest in nature.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Hugh, along with his parents and three siblings, moved at the age of five to Riverside, RI. It was about this time that Hugh’s humor and interest in birds first surfaced, when pointing out the window, he proclaimed to his father, “See da waxwing!”

In 2016, Hugh Willoughby (left) donated a beautifully restored, 1854 edition of Gilbert White’s classic Natural History of Selborne to the Survey, here accepted by director David Gregg.

His father, a fine amateur naturalist and a renowned genealogist, was a professor of psychology at Brown University. His mother was an outstanding teacher, and for many years was a highly regarded tutor of children with special needs.

While still in high school, Hugh, a National Merit Scholar, tutored fellow students in such diverse subjects as U.S. history, elementary Spanish, German, algebra, and geometry. At Brown University Hugh established reading proficiency in French, German, and Spanish, and he played first bassoon in the Brown-Pembroke Orchestra for four years. Hugh received his undergraduate honors degree in geology, and was the Francis Wayland Scholar of the class of 1953. With typical Willoughby wit, he says that his degree in geology has proved to be a good foundation for his other outdoor studies.

After graduation he spent two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict. He was fortunate, he says, “to have no foreign duty other than in Texas!” While in the Army he was selected to be a Troop Information Leader, where he gained valuable experience in lesson preparation. Hugh says that this experience helped him to overcome his tendency to panic in public-speaking situations. His friends, however, cannot imagine Hugh ever having a tendency to panic about public speaking!

After his discharge from the military, Hugh worked as a claims adjuster for the Liberty Mutual Insurance Companies for several years. He began his career in public education in a one-year position as head of a middle-school science department. As testament to his scholarship and versatility, he then pursued a career as a high-school English teacher and guidance counselor at East Providence High School. After earning a master’s degree in guidance and counseling, he moved to the Counseling Center at the University of Rhode Island. Later he returned to East Providence High School as a guidance counselor, before retiring in 1986.

Hugh served on the Board of Directors of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, where, as Chairman of the Field-trip Committee, he was instrumental in turning the annual Block Island Weekend into a major fundraiser. He also served as a Leader on Block Island for 37 years. For most of those years he gave his famous Sunday morning ‘sermon.’ Hugh offered presentations on a variety of subjects ranging from geology to field botany, or to insights into avian migration as observed on Block Island. Ever on the lookout during these talks, an American Bittern flying overhead once interrupted Hugh’s banter. After pointing out the bittern to the group, Hugh reminded his listeners “that you have to take the bittern with the sweet.”

Hugh also devised a similar though smaller annual excursion to Nantucket Island, which he co-led for 14 years. Pursuing the same purposes, Hugh has taught several courses for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, including birding, field botany, and geology.
Over the years Hugh has also become legendary for his editing skills. Woe betide anyone who tangles with “CommaRule3” (Hugh’s email handle)! Hugh was editor and publisher of prize-winning books in genealogy during the 1970s, and he is currently the Senior Technical Reviewer for the American Birding Association, for which he has done editorial work since 1971.

Hugh is a self-taught naturalist. In this respect he has been both a good student and an excellent teacher. He is a voracious reader with an amazing memory for detail. Add this to his love of field identification and observation, and the result is someone well prepared to teach others.

Two traits that enhance Hugh’s ability to teach and to instill curiosity in his diverse groups of students are his ability to relate to people and his exceptional humor. He is comfortable talking about flowers with a small child, or helping an older person learn to use binoculars correctly. More importantly, people are comfortable talking to Hugh. Hugh is always interested in hearing what someone has to say, or to answer any question. His ability to remember names is remarkable. He has always made a point of learning the names of every individual on a walk or trip that he leads, and he never forgets a name!

Hugh’s humor is legendary, and no discussion of Hugh would be complete without mentioning it. Hugh is the master of the pun, the one-liner, the double entendre, and most other forms of humor. A simple rule to use when you are in a conversation with Hugh is “Watch what you say! It may be used against you!” Several members of the Audubon Society’s Properties Committee look forward to property tours just to be entertained by Hugh’s jokes. In addition to being subjected to Hugh’s quick wit, the committee expects to hear samples of his repertoire of humorous commentary. Veteran Willoughby Watchers might recognize some of his standbys, such as “Sanctuary much!”, “I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate!”, “A dump of gulls”, “The bird was in that tree five minutes before I got here!”, “That bird showed up a minute after I left!”, or the committee van might go over a bump in South County and provoke Hugh to comment “they’ll never get rid of these bumps until they learn to build a highway across a kettle hole!”

It is his wealth of knowledge and this wonderful humor that have enabled Hugh to teach so much to so many. By sharing his passion for the natural world he has done more than most to ensure that future generations will carry out his charge to care for the wild things. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to be his students, we are indebted.

Hugh Willoughby passed away on April 10, 2023. He was in his mid-90’s, and he had been a great friend to the Survey for many years.

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