A Battle Won

Retired Col. Orville Hughes' fight to put aging vetarns and young students together became a rare legislative victory

April 25, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

It was 1:25 on a weekday afternoon when retired Army Col. Orville Hughes, veteran of World War II, veteran of Korea, veteran of the Cold War, stood before a group of high school juniors at Baltimore Lutheran School and embarked on a new mission.

He'd stood here before, in his grandson's class, but never in such an official capacity. Never with the blessing of the Maryland General Assembly. Never with a recently passed Senate Joint Resolution behind him.

It had taken Colonel Hughes two years to sell lawmakers on the resolution encouraging schoolteachers to invite veterans into their classrooms - two years to ensure that the state's schoolchildren had an opportunity to learn about history from those who lived and breathed it firsthand.

The resolution finally passed both houses of the legislature this year, so it didn't matter that Alan Freeman's history class had only just begun to study Adolf Hitler's rise to power. Colonel Hughes was happy to come anytime, even now.

As the students filed into the classroom and plopped down into their seats, he watched them and was aware how differently he was dressed. They wore shorts and collared shirts. He wore a tie bearing the insignia of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He listened as their teacher, Mr. Freeman, told them to use him "as a great resource," and those words were music to his ears. He'd lobbied legislators for that opportunity. Not just for him, but for all veterans across the state.

But when he stepped to the podium, Colonel Hughes had no way of knowing whether what he had to say mattered to these teen-agers. Would they understand his story? Would they marvel at the memorabilia he'd brought? Would they ask the kind of misguided questions that had irked his generation for years - questions about whether or not the Battle of the Bulge was a diet plan?

In Classroom No. 8, a room decorated with maps and posters and laminated newspapers the colonel read decades ago - when John F. Kennedy was shot, when Richard M. Nixon resigned - he began by telling the students where he was in 1939, as Hitler's aggression provoked World War II.

Sitting, he told them, where they sit now, about to graduate from high school.

Every eye was on him. It was the moment he'd waited for when he'd come up with the idea for the resolution.

Of the 2,300 bills introduced into this most recent session of the legislature, few were as lucky as his. No one knows for sure how many were initiated by individuals like him, but by most accounts, the number was few, and the number that passed even fewer.

A bill initiated by a Silver Spring third-grader - to make walking the state exercise - died in the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee after rumblings about yet another "symbol bill." Sen. Ida Ruben's bill to stop telemarketers from leaving messages on answering machines died in the Senate Finance Committee. And Bill and Muriel Elliott had seen their bill, named in memory of their son, John, go down in defeat in Maryland. John, a Naval Academy graduate, was killed by a drunken driver on his way to his parents' home in New Jersey, and their bill would have required every person who picks up a drunken driver in custody be warned they are liable for anything that happens if that person gets back in the driver's seat.

Colonel Hughes had learned from his first go-round that to get a bill passed requires an understanding of committees and their assignments, and a willingness to confront politicians. Like the Elliotts, he'd campaigned and rallied support. He'd taken up the issue with the statewide coalition of veterans groups, the Joint Veterans Committee.

Last year, losing was difficult, but he didn't give up.

It was the same with Alice Skidmore, whose two-year effort to persuade Maryland lawmakers to increase the monthly allowance for Medicaid recipients in nursing homes finally passed this year.

Skidmore was at the nursing home where her mother lives in Western Maryland when Sen. John Hafer's office called with news of the bill's success. She quickly spread the word through the home. "The ones that understood - bless them - they thought it would be right now," she says. "They didn't know they'd have to wait a year." The increase, from $40 to $60 a month for personal items, will be phased in gradually, beginning the next fiscal year. In the meantime, Skidmore waits for another call from the senator's office. This one will give her two day's notice before the governor signs her bill into law.

Finally - Colonel Hughes knew how good that felt.

He'd worried that if his resolution didn't pass soon, the very veterans who made history would not be around to talk about it.

Finally - Colonel Hughes had his chance.

He had 41 minutes before the seventh-period history class ended.

"When I was in high school, we did not have television," he told students. "The only visual news report was through the movies." The first time he saw Hitler was on a movie screen, he said, in a news reel.

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