For four decades, Professor Alun Hughes taught cartography and drafting at Brock University, but up until his death in 2013, the beloved Thorold resident was equally well-known for being a passionate historian.
Several of his colleagues gathered with Hughes’ family and friends at Brock recently, to celebrate the release of History Made in Niagara, a book bursting with local stories based on Hughes’ groundbreaking research. With essays bearing titles such as Thorold Sold for a Song, and Laura Secord’s Key and the Schoolbook Scandal, co-editors Mike Ripmeester, Loris Gasparotto, and David Butz decided the local true stories deserved to be re-told.
As Butz, Brock’s Professor of Geography & Tourism Studies, explained, “When Mike and I began to put together these essays two years ago, we wanted to honour the memory of a former colleague, whose strong opinions and sustained influence on the Department were well worth remembering, and we wanted to give a second life to Alun’s painstaking research.”
Hughes’ career as an historical author was launched in the Thorold News print version in 2003, in which he uncovered the link between Lady Godiva and Thorold; the connection between outlaw Jesse James and the Keefer Mansion, and chronicled many more entertaining tales, which later spread to other local newspapers.
The book stemmed from “Our appreciation of his efforts and our affection for him,” said Ripmeester, “and one can certainly hear Alun’s voice through the volumes, particularly if you can read it with a Welsh accent.”
Born in Bridgend, South Wales, Hughes earned a BA in Arts (Geography) and a Certificate in Education from the University of Cambridge, and completed a post-graduate degree in Cartography from the University College of Swansea. He worked as a cartographic editor in London before immigrating to Canada in 1969, and spent many happy years in a historic home in Thorold.
A self-professed stickler for detail, in one of his essays, he seems pleased to report that a newspaper columnist referred to him as a “fusspot,” according to the co-editors’ introduction in the book.
“Dad’s research was a constant fixture in my life,” said Ffion Hughes, Alun’s youngest daughter. She recalled her father “sitting with a cheese sandwich, typing with two fingers,” and mused that she “spent more time than my peers in the land registry office” rifling through records with her dad, sporting “his signature Tilley hat.”
“I eventually did catch the history bug and I’m studying history at McGill (University), she added.
“When you look at work represented in this volume, I see the integration of great storytelling and a commitment for people to see their world better,” said Dr. Tim Kenyon, Vice President of Research at Brock, who added that when his family recently got together, they were so excited Hughes’ book had just been released that they instantly stopped visiting so everyone could dive into reading it.
Mike Pisaric, Department chair of Geography and Tourism, said he was “a student of Professor Hughes many years ago." Hughes "joined the then geography department in 1969 and served the department for four decades before retiring in 2012. He led Brock’s geographic into the field of geometrics, including creating the first geometrics lab in our department. He is fondly remembered for it by many students, including myself.”
Pisaric said many students—upon hearing about the book—sent him messages, such as: “Alun was one of my main reasons for a love of maps and teaching geography;” “He instilled his passion for cartography in me and many other students;” and simply, “Alun was one of my favourites.”
Craig Finlay spoke on behalf of the city of Thorold. A neighbour of the Hughes family, he's also the chair of Heritage Thorold.
“Until his passing in 2013, Alun was a significant contributor to” heritage promotion and projects that helped the city capture the prestigious Prince of Wales Award, Finlay stated. “I remember fondly seeing him on the street, and the look on his face said he had an interesting story to tell.”
Finlay called “the connection between Lady Godiva and the city of Thorold, my favourite” of Hughes' offerings.
“When I first met Alun, he scared me,” confessed David Sharron, head of Special Collections at Brock, adding that, initially, just the sound of Hughes’ voice gave him cause for alarm.
“He came at me with questions. I think he wanted to see what he could get away with. He was a fiery person. But once I got to know him better, I understood his process. I used to seek him out to hear his voice. I finally understood his commitment to Niagara when he generously donated his research collection to the archives,” Sharron added, consisting of 45 boxes filled with research files, and more to come, according to Hughes’ wife, Joyce Little.
“It’s become that go-to collection for us about Niagara,” Sharron continued. “He was so inquisitive and inspired. He’s our go-to guy still, and it’s really wonderful. It is some of the best history that’s been written about Niagara in the last 15 years.”
Local historian John Burtniak credited Hughes with "perfecting the short, four-page approach to historical writing,” after “ruthlessly researching,” which resulted in “fresh and breathtaking new information and perspectives, including recovering pre-written research that was incorrect. In these four-page passages,” Burtniak continued, Hughes “said as much as some said in 40, or 140, or even 240” pages. According to Burtniak, Hughes' “well-crafted volume is a valued addition to our local history, and should be required reading.”
The editors hope to see History Made in Niagara for sale in local bookstores soon. For now, the book is available for $35 by calling the Department of Geography and Tourism Studies at 905-688-5550, x3514 or x3484.