Hugh King is a man of many faces.
On the surface, he is a historian, an actor, a teacher and an avid baseball fan — with an entire room in his Amagansett home dedicated to the sport. He is a husband and a caregiver, a trusted colleague, and a friend to so many across the East End and beyond.
At age 80, he is firm, yet gentle and kind, vibrant and welcoming. He is steadfast in his opinions, but always eager to listen. His wit and effortless humor shine through while challenging the status quo, and even though he loves history, he never stagnates nor lives in the past — always striving to be better.
This is why Hugh King is The East Hampton Press’s Person of the Year for 2021.
“He’s got a really strong commitment to the community. That’s so important and that’s what makes small-town living great — having individuals like Hugh,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “He exemplifies the paternal, benevolent, community-minded person. He just exudes that.”
For decades, King has devoted his life to sharing the history of East Hampton, helping others understand and learn from it in ways big and small. That includes Christina Strassfield, the museum director and chief curator of Guild Hall.
“He has done so much for the community — both past, present and for the future,” she said, “so that the legacy of East Hampton lives on.”
On December 14, 1941, King was born to his parents, Hugh and Louise, in Brooklyn, where his mother grew up — and where they lived until he was 6. But his father was a Bonacker, he said, and was eager to return to his roots and start a plumbing business in Amagansett.
And with that, their son became the 13th or 14th generation of Kings on the East End.
“Oh, I guess so, but I don’t talk about that a lot, and I’ll tell you why,” King said. “All these people who claim or brag about, ‘Oh I’m a 13th, 14th generation, and that means I’m more special than you are’? If you look back in history, some of their ancestors were bums and crooks, you see.
“So when you’re bragging about your ancestors, you’d better be careful — because some of them were put in stocks, some of ’em kicked the constable and broke his ankle,” the historian continued. “So, yes, I am, but that doesn’t necessarily give you a higher status, as far as I’m concerned.”
In 1947, the family moved into the same farmhouse that King calls home today — and his childhood there was nothing short of idyllic, he said. He lived with both his parents and grandparents, and he recalled the garden that his grandfather kept in the backyard, which grew an abundance of vegetables that his mother and grandmother would can for the winter.
“Ah, we lived in happy days out here, are you kidding?” he said. “Oh! It was wonderful. First of all, across the street, there’s an open field — and it’s still there — and in the 1950s, we played baseball there every day in the summertime.”
In fact, he joined the Amagansett Little League’s inaugural team, which won the championship game in 1954. A photo from those days hangs on the wall of King’s baseball room, joined by pictures of him playing at East Hampton High School, as well as an extensive hat collection, shirts, jackets, bats, and a television dedicated to watching the sport when he can.
He follows the New York Mets, he said, but tries not to root for any one team. He simply loves the game as a whole.
“It’s not like football, where every play they’re jumping up and down, and screaming and hollering. Or basketball, where they’re running up and down the court and jumping,” he said. “I like baseball because it goes along at a leisurely pace, and then, all of a sudden, it can get dramatic. And there’s no time limit. The game’s not over until the last out.”
A Home For Life
Looking from the window of his baseball room, King noted an old elm tree standing in the front yard, where his father once tied ropes to the branches to make a swing.
Much of the farmhouse itself remains unchanged, he said. At over 100 years old, it rattles and shakes, its windows drafty and some stuck in place — but he said he never intends to leave.
King graduated from East Hampton High School in 1959 and went on to study at SUNY Oneonta, where he earned his teaching degree. Straight out of college, he landed a job in the Riverhead Central School District and commuted every day from Amagansett — which wasn’t a problem in 1963, he said.
Just two years later, a new opportunity presented itself, though — one that was much closer to home.
“I got traded for a librarian and came to fifth grade at Springs School, one of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” King said. “What a wonderful, wonderful place to teach.”
Over the next 31 years, King taught hundreds of children in grades three through six, and partnered with fellow teacher Ruth Philley to lead the gifted and talented program in the early 1980s. By that time, he was a leader in the school, she recalled, and both students and fellow teachers looked up to him.
“There is not a kinder man, or a man who loved kids more, or loved his colleagues more,” Philley said. “I was going through a difficult time, and I remember it was Valentine’s Day, so he came to my house and took me out for Valentine’s Day. I was married, he had a girlfriend — but he knew I was feeling low. And that’s who Hughey always was.”
In the classroom, King was an innovator, Philley said. He was wiling to take chances and try new things, relentlessly challenging both himself and his students.
“If a child was having trouble, difficulty with academics, he was always there to help them. There was no such thing as a failure,” Philley said. “He made sure that whatever kids needed, in the way of extra help, that they got it, or earned some extra credit to boost their grade. But he also was demanding — he wasn’t a giveaway. He was demanding of his students, that they reach their full potential.”
For King, the joy he found in teaching couldn’t be measured in daily student growth. It was a cumulative progress, he explained, watching them flourish and learn bit by bit throughout the year — only for him to start all over again each fall.
“If you give people confidence that they’re okay, no matter where they stand on the spectrum of grades, I think you’ve changed someone’s life,” he said. “And what’s better than that?”
A Crier Is Born
Known for bringing his lessons to life, in 1987, the teacher dressed up in colonial garb as one of his ancestors, Rufus King, who was a New York senator and signer of the U.S. Constitution, in an effort to both teach and commemorate its 200th anniversary.
It was such a hit that the East Hampton Town Board caught wind and invited him to their meeting for an encore in full costume attire.
“So I went!” King said. “Fred Yardley, who was the town clerk, and Tony Bullock, who was the supervisor, suggested that I be appointed a town crier — and I just go around to schools and organizations and talk about local East Hampton history, which I didn’t know a lot about yet.”
He started by borrowing the East Hampton Village trustees’ records from the library, which he would read during lulls in his shifts at the East Hampton Historical Society, where he worked part time. Not long after, he also was appointed the official East Hampton Village historian.
Then, he graduated to the East Hampton Town Board records, he said, which better prepared him for his local appearances as town crier — perhaps most famously his historic walking tours.
Strassfield joined one shortly after she moved to the East End in 1987, she said, largely unfamiliar with the town’s history and not knowing what to expect.
“For me, the first lantern tour that I did with him was just so special. I felt like I learned so much and I was being taken back in time,” she said. “I’ll never forget that. I really, really enjoyed that experience tremendously. It stayed with me. It’s stayed with me all these years. It was living history.”
It is no small feat to be in costume and play that role, Strassfield pointed out, “but he does it so well that you don’t even think about it.” In warmer months, King would often wear a vest over a flamboyant purple shirt with ruffled sleeves, but he was better known for his winter getup — complete with a dark cape, a black stovepipe hat and a bell in hand.
“It’s literally like he was transported from that time to us, just to ring the bell: ‘Hey, guys, don’t forget about us!’” Van Scoyoc said. “He could be in a Dickens novel. He could be the Ghost of Christmas Past, bringing back the fond memories of history to Ebenezer.”
The position has always come naturally to King, who embraced the starring role of each talk or tour he gave. “I thought it was great because I was also an actor,” he said. “I got to perform and not have to learn any lines.”
The Ride Of His Life
He had answered the call to theater nearly 25 years earlier, he explained. It all started on a Sunday evening in 1963 while sitting at the bar of The Newtown when a goat walked through the front door.
And behind the goat were the Guild Hall Players.
“They had just finished performing ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon,’ and they were having a cast party — and they brought the goat,” King said. “So I saw all these people and they’re having such fun, and they said, ‘Well, why don’t you join us?’”
Before he knew it, he was making his debut performance in “The Time of Your Life,” a five-act drama by William Saroyan.
“The play was terrible — my father woke up when the gun went off in the third act — but it was my introduction to theater,” he said. “And I actually got into theater to meet women — and, unfortunately, I met too many.”
But that all changed when, in 1979, theater and a summer job at The Royale Fish restaurant collided — and introduced him to a waitress named Loretta.
She was a nurse escaping her life in New York City for a few months when the restaurant owner, Rich Feleppa — who was also an actor and director — asked her if she had seen King perform in a series of plays that summer. “Those were the magic words,” King said, and swiftly offered her a ride when she said she didn’t have a car.
“So it really wasn’t a date, you see — I was just giving her a ride to see the play. And that’s how it started,” he said. “She got to see all three plays, and then after the summer was over, she had to go back to the city. She left nursing and went to bartending school, and then she went to Stony Brook to get her master’s, and then she got her doctorate in anthropology — but we met at The Royale Fish restaurant in Amagansett.”
The couple married in 1982 and “had everybody else’s children,” King said. His wife taught courses in witchcraft, magic and religion at Stony Brook University, Hofstra University and Suffolk County Community College, wrote a pair of books, and developed the gardens at the Home Sweet Home Museum, where King serves as director.
“She had a garden in the back where she grew flowers and then when they became big enough, she took them over to Home Sweet Home,” he said. “She called it ‘the bullpen.’”
When he wasn’t teaching, King ran the drama club at Springs School with Philley and, up until 1999, continued to act in several amateur theater troupes, including the Guild Hall Players, which marked Barbara Borsack’s introduction to her now longtime friend.
They were both in the musical “Oklahoma,” she recalled — she, a sophomore at East Hampton High School, in the chorus, and he, as traveling salesman Ali Hakim, stole the show.
“I just thought he was hysterical. He’s so funny,” she recalled. “I loved him ever since. He’s just one of those people who is so easy to love. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He’s just a sweetheart. He’s one of those treasures that we’re so lucky to have in East Hampton.”
The pair would see each another at meetings of the East Hampton Village Board, to which Borsack was the first woman to be elected, and King continues to attend as the village historian.
In January 2020, he was named the official East Hampton Town historian, sometimes opening the public portion of the meetings with a humorous historic anecdote — while, later, often urging public officials to look at the cyclical nature of history before making important decisions.
“Just when you think something’s brand new, it’s never happened before, guess what?” King said. “It’s happened before, and maybe we could look back and see how those people dealt with the problem. It might help us solve a problem today.”
According to Borsack, King’s breadth of East Hampton knowledge is virtually unmatched — but the historian is quick to point out that it has taken over three decades of studying for him to get to this point.
“He just has such a gift, like really good schoolteachers do, of reaching people and getting people interested,” Van Scoyoc said. “He’s just so enthusiastic and positive and self-deprecating. Every time I try to give him a compliment, he just turns it right back around.
“I see him with his wife, Loretta, who he’s just so sweet and dear with,” he continued. “The care and love that you see, he’s just a loving person, he’s just so wonderful.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, King has largely sheltered in place due to his wife’s advancing dementia. “We really had to hide,” he said. “I can’t afford to get sick and go into quarantine — who’s going to take care of my wife? And then if Loretta gets sick, she’s not gonna really be able to communicate to me what’s wrong.”
He let out a deep sigh. “That’s why I’m just so furious about the people who won’t get vaccinated and won’t wear masks,” he said, “because they’re putting my life really in danger.”
While King has help from caregivers, he is his wife’s primary source of support, he explained — and watching her decline has taken a toll on him.
“We’re not equipped to deal with this. You’re just not. And as you get older, it’s not easier. It’s so sad, too,” he said. “I try not to think about it, because I would cry, but here’s a woman who was so smart and so creative and had written two books, numerous articles, taught all this, and now she can’t read or write.”
On December 18, four days after King’s 80th birthday, the couple hosted a small gathering at their house in Amagansett — a home that stores countless stories within its walls, in a hamlet that holds hundreds of years of his own history.
For King, there is no place he would rather be.
“I’m so glad we’re here now,” he said. “All the memories of this house are still here.”
As published in the East Hampton Press