At a funeral service attended by about 800 mourners at First Presbyterian Church, Friday, a longtime president of the University of North Carolina system, and others remembered the deep-seated sense of public service that drove much of Morton's life.
Morton died June 1 at 85 of cancer. He was a developer, tourism promoter, photographer and conservationist best known as owner of western North Carolina's distinctive Grandfather Mountain.
"Hugh Morton was a leader of that 'greatest generation'" that fought World War II and led America through the second half of the 20th century, Friday said. "They were gentle people with a purpose. They wanted their lives to count for something. They wanted to make the world a better place. And Hugh Morton did."
The service was held in the same church where Morton and his wife Julia were married Dec. 8, 1945, Friday noted.
"Together, Hugh and Julia taught us that our sharing of ourselves with others is our greatest work," he said. "Julia, a grateful state thanks you for making Hugh possible."
Longtime friend and adviser Mack Pearsall saluted Morton's "uncanny ability to be financially successful in a way that never sacrificed his love for the environment to his love for a dollar.
"Hugh's life was more about making a difference for the people of his beloved North Carolina than about making a dollar for himself," Pearsall said.
Gov. Mike Easley, former governors Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin and UNC system President Erskine Bowles were among those who attended the service.
"He had North Carolina written all over his heart," Bowles said afterward.
"He had my number. I couldn't say no to him," Easley recalled, citing Morton's lobbying for passage of the 2002 Clean Smokestacks bill intended to fight the air pollution that is devastating the western mountains.
"He didn't have to be governor," Easley added. "He told the rest of us what to do."
Pearsall and Friday cited the many successes that made Morton a North Carolina icon, from starting Wilmington's Azalea Festival to preserving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. He led the campaign to bring the battleship U.S.S. North Carolina to Wilmington as a tourist attraction and saved Grandfather Mountain by persuading the federal government to build the Blue Ridge Parkway around _ instead of through _ the mountain.
Also in the church were former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and his former longtime assistant Phil Ford. Morton, a devoted UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus, was a mainstay on the sidelines at home football and basketball games, capturing Tar Heel greats from Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice to Michael Jordan with his camera.
The hourlong service included the presentation to Julia Morton of the American flag that flew aboard the U.S.S. North Carolina on June 1. Many mourners wiped tears from their eyes as they sang "America the Beautiful."
Morton is to be cremated and his ashes scattered over Grandfather Mountain, the place he loved most. Michael Leonard, an attorney who helped Morton conserve thousands of acres in the western mountains, read from the Bible's Book of Isaiah: "The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."
Copyright 2023 by WRAL.com and the Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.