The Belleville community is mourning the loss of Mary McHugh, 83, a woman who worked tirelessly to help others. The longtime educator and community advocate died Friday at a hospice in Edwardsville following a short battle with liver cancer.
"She was an outstanding lady who has given more than people realize to this community, to the kids and to the families," Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said. "Her commitment to Belleville was unbelievable."
Eckert said McHugh was like a mother to him over the years. The two first met when he was in a play with her daughter in 1970 at Central Junior High in Belleville. Eckert's character was married to one of McHugh's daughters in the play.
"Mary always teased she was my mother-in-law," he said. "Mary McHugh was the closest thing to a second mother I could have. When it comes to character, she was the best."
Matt Klosterman, superintendent of Belleville School District 118, said McHugh was a "remarkable person. Her impact will carry on forever," he said. "It's a significant loss not only for our district but the entire community."
For 43 years, McHugh taught at Franklin Elementary School in District 118. She established the District Spelling Bee, Young Authors Conference and District Science Fair.
McHugh began teaching in Goreville in 1952 and also taught in Vienna and Corpus Christi, Texas, before starting at District 118 in August 1957. She retired after 49 years in education.
Klosterman described McHugh as a "true citizen of the community. Everything she did was for the betterment of those around her," he said.
Friend Rose Wilson met McHugh after moving to Belleville in 1977. Wilson's two sons attended Franklin School. McHugh was their teacher.
"She was a wonderful person. She was the best teacher, the most caring teacher," Wilson said. "She was giving, kind, caring."
Wilson said she and Mary McHugh became friends quickly. "If you wanted a good friend for life, Mary was that friend," she said.
They became inseparable over the past decade, attending Belleville City Council meetings and other community events together.
"If there was a volunteer thing needed, Mary was the volunteer," Wilson said. "She absolutely loved her city."
McHugh even volunteered at Franklin School as a tutor for students up until last year.
"There wasn't an unkind bone in her body," Wilson said. "She was a small woman, but she had a big, big spirit. It will be a long time for someone to follow in her footsteps, if that's even possible."
McHugh remained active in the community up until her death. She was treasurer of the board for the Center for Racial Harmony in Belleville. Rachel Jackson-Bramwell had the pleasure of serving on the board with McHugh.
"This community has just lost one of its biggest angels," Jackson-Bramwell said. "She is going to be missed. She was so amazing."
Jackson-Bramwell is also executive director of Project Compassion, a nonprofit organization. She said McHugh was her "biggest cheerleader.
"She had a way of making you feel like a giant, making you feel like you are the strongest girl in the world," Jackson-Bramwell said.
Retired Judge Annette Eckert first met McHugh when she was just 4 years old. "She was always the warmest, kindest, most thoughtful person," Annette Eckert said. "She just devoted herself to her family, her community and even more than that, to humanity. She believed the best in the human spirit."
McHugh helped create the Franklin Neighborhood Community Association in Belleville. "She was one of the biggest supporters in starting the Franklin Neighborhood Association in 1992," Mark Eckert said.
McHugh served as a Belleville Township trustee and a charter member and officer of the City of Belleville Human Relations Commission.
She was involved in the St. Clair County Historical Society, the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce, the Optimist Club and the Homeless Initiative Committee. McHugh co-founded the Belleville Achieves Strength in Character initiative and the annual Storytelling Festival in Belleville.
For her community service work, McHugh was honored with many awards over the years, including the Belleville District 118 Bill Porzukowiak Character Award, the St. Louis Metropolitan Urban League Community Service Award, the Racial Harmony Community Service Award, the St. Clair County Lawyers Liberty Bell Award and the 1983 Illinois Master Teacher Award.
McHugh's service to the community was recently recognized by both U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, and Mark Eckert.
Enyart honored McHugh on the floor of the U.S. Capitol on July 9, and Mark Eckert proclaimed July 5 Mary McHugh Day in the city of Belleville.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
She is survived by six children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She was preceded in death by two husbands, Robert Joe Moore and Joseph Robert McHugh.