Hugh Muldoon, a builder of community and champion for peace, justice, and the environment, flew away on his next great adventure on Tuesday evening, October 12, at 7:58 p.m. Moments later, church bells rang just down the street. Judy Ashby, his wife of 25 years, was holding his hand, and his children were encircling him in his living room.
Hugh began enriching his southern Illinois community from the moment he arrived 53 years ago, following his already eventful first 29 years in New York State. Hugh Joseph Muldoon was born July 17, 1939, to Hugh Joseph Muldoon and Margaret Maher in the Irish Catholic neighborhood of South Buffalo. He grew up between his older sister Jane and younger brother John, and they experienced an early tragedy when their mother died when Hugh was 11. At the time he was recovering from appendicitis in the same hospital, the Mercy Hospital of Buffalo. From his window he saw the ambulance that brought in his mother, although he had not been aware it was her. A priest told him that she was there and that he should visit her, but when he arrived at her room it was already empty.
Hugh’s childhood revolved around the church, school, friends, and especially his extended family, who maintained a long tradition of monthly Sunday visits at different households. Hugh’s immediate family grew when his father, a U.S. Customs Agents on the Canadian border, married Mary Laufenberger in 1956, and they later had a daughter, Ann. Hugh attended Bishop Timon High School where he graduated in 1957 and excelled in his classes and sports including cross country. He forged tight bonds with a close group of friends there that included the late William Broderick, who would later be his daughter’s godfather.
Following the path of his older sister Jane, who had joined the Sisters of Mercy, Hugh entered the seminary and enrolled as an undergraduate at St. Bonaventure University. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in humanities, followed by a bachelor of theology and master of arts in philosophy from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He was ordained as a Franciscan Priest on March 13, 1966.
Hugh taught philosophy at St. Bonaventure, and his great intellectual and spiritual curiosity led him to pursue further studies—and to begin questioning his foundational Catholic faith. Beyond the church, the tumultuous decade of the 1960s was raging, and Hugh’s advisors thought their young protégé might benefit from working in the wider world.
In 1968—the year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the launching of the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive, and police riots rocking the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—Hugh arrived in Carbondale. He came as a priest and a candidate for a Doctorate of Philosophy from Southern Illinois University (SIU). He would remain neither of those, but he would remain in Carbondale—and become so much more to the people here.
A 2013 article in the Southern Illinoisan reported that Hugh “was attracted to SIU because of its graduate program, but he quickly became caught up in the anti-war movement on campus.” He was soon participating in protests and then organizing them, working tirelessly as an activist to gather hundreds of students for rallies in a time before cell phones or social media. That led him to the Student Christian Foundation, a hub for civil rights activism and anti-draft counseling. The foundation, which began in the 1940s as the ecumenical and innovative Christian Campus Ministry, became a home for Hugh. It was subsequently called the University Christian Ministries and ultimately the Gaia House Interfaith Center. He began as a coordinator there and then an administrator for the university’s community development program, where he helped a dynamic group of returning Peace Corps volunteers develop their skills and understanding of community work.
In the fall of 1969 at the Newman Center Hugh met Linda Jane “Lyn” Corder, an undergraduate from Georgia. When he encouraged her to attend mass, she thought he was “a cute little Irish priest who wore Franciscan robes and sandals.” While becoming friends, they were in an automobile accident and Lyn was badly hurt. She was taken to a hospital in St. Louis where he visited her frequently during her recovery. “That sealed the deal,” she said. Hugh left the priesthood, broke the news to his family in Buffalo, and they were married in 1972.
That was a momentous year for Hugh, as he also ran for Congress as an independent against Democratic incumbent Kenneth Gray. The Daily Egyptian reported on Hugh’s candidacy, saying he was running “on a strongly worded anti-war plank.” The papers also reported on his marriage to Lyn. The headline read, “Love conquers peace candidate.” Lyn and Hugh had three children before the end of the decade: Ryan in 1975, Cory in 1977, and Maureen in 1979.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Hugh poured his energies into a wide variety of peace, education, community, and environmental projects. He was a principal founder of the Carbondale Peace Center in 1973 and during 1974 served on the board of directors for Synergy, an organization helping people suffering from drug addictions. Hugh was instrumental in the formation of the Peace Coalition of Southern Illinois as well as the Shawnee Solar Project where he served as Community Developer and later Director. He also served as coordinator for the Jackson County Action to Save Energy, liaison for the United Technologies Automotive Workplace Literacy Project, and director of the LitCon Family Literacy Development Center. He then developed and ran the Literacy Connection, an adult literacy program at John A. Logan College. Hugh was also a volunteer leader in the Southern Counties Action Movement and Southern Illinois Latin American Solidarity Coalition.
Hugh was active in many spiritual and faith communities in Carbondale, perhaps most deeply at the Church of the Good Shepherd, which he joined in 1988. He attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions on multiple occasions and was deeply committed to interfaith community building. When a healthcare worker recently asked his religion, Hugh replied, “Universalist, with a slant towards Christianity.”
Hugh’s profound work in his community was not without challenges. He left his Ph.D. program “all but dissertation,” and he and Lyn divorced in 1986. Their separation was mutual and truly amicable; they co-hosted a party when their divorce was finalized and remained close. Hugh cared for their three kids while Lyn completed her own doctorate and began her career in higher education development. Remarkably, Hugh juggled his many work projects with being a single father. Son Ryan remembers the great importance of sitting down to family dinners every evening at 5:30. Chicken, rice, and broccoli—served in many forms—were long-standing staples and remain significant foods to all three kids.
By the early 1990s, Hugh was an empty-nester. Sons Ryan and Cory had moved with their mother to Buffalo, NY and stayed there for high school when Lyn took a job at the University of South Dakota; Maureen moved from Carbondale to join her mom. While working at John A. Logan College Hugh met Judy Ashby. Their paths continued to intersect, and they discovered a kindredness of spirits. In addition to her work as a mental health counselor, Judy founded the LifeSavers Training Corporation, a suicide and crisis prevention training program that impacted the lives of thousands of high school students. Her and Hugh’s marriage on September 1, 1996, was a community celebration that included a promenade down Poplar Street and a block party on Elm Street that ran long into the night.
Long-lasting community gatherings quickly became hallmarks of Hugh and Judy’s partnership. Hugh had already begun hosting an annual St. Patrick’s Day Party, and with
Judy’s collaboration these grew to legendary events that they held annually until 2013. Only the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed their annual Christmas day open house, a potluck gathering of food, fellowship, carols, and “green elephant gifts” for family, friends, international students, and people who had nowhere else to go on the holiday.
In 1997, Hugh returned to his earliest roots in Carbondale, what was by then the Interfaith Center, serving as its director for the next thirteen years and leading its rebranding as the Gaia House Interfaith Center. His activism continued within its walls and far beyond them as he was a fixture at the Saturday peace vigils downtown for decades, and central to many organizing efforts. His community building continued, too, with his love for music and its ability to bring people together. Alongside Brian Crowe and many others, he helped coordinate early versions of the Southern Illinois Festival of Irish Music and Dance and could often be founds at live music performances. In 1997 he realized a long-held dream by traveling to Cuba on a solidarity trip with Rev. Ted Braun, an activist who worked tirelessly to build stronger relationships between the US and Cuba. Hugh was actively influential in Carbondale’s Racial Justice Coalition and Human Relations Commission; he was also a member and former president of the Carbondale chapter of the Rotary Club.
Travel took on a significant role in Hugh’s life. He returned to Buffalo regularly to visit his family; his kids recall epic road trips where Hugh would drive them the entire distance—nearly 800 miles—in a single day. Hugh drove all over the country to see his kids as they attended colleges on both coasts and in between. Joined by Judy, he drove to see his kids (and later his grandsons) as they settled into their own lives. When longtime Carbondale friends moved to distant cities and states, Hugh and Judy drove to visit them, too. Along the way on all of these trips, they spent most nights on the road with friends they knew through their incredible circle of community. That even extended back to the Muldoon homelands in Ireland, where Hugh and Judy visited longtime friend Peter Shanahan.
The connections Hugh and Judy have fostered are impossible to measure. They introduced hundreds if not thousands of friends. Dozens of couples met or came together at their parties, frequently aided by a nudge from Hugh. He performed marriage ceremonies for more than forty couples, including all three of his children. After retiring from Gaia House in 2010, he stayed active in multiple groups: coffee groups that met at Panera Bread and the Co-op, a writing group that focused on poetry, and a monthly evening men’s group that frequently included campfires and drumming circles.
Even through the challenges of mounting health concerns and a global pandemic, Hugh kept building relationships and traveling to connect with his extended community. In the last months of his life, with Judy driving their red Prius, they traveled to West Virginia to meet up with kids and grandkids; and made their final road trip to Buffalo. There they honored the life of Lyn’s second husband, Albert Somit (a former SIU-C president), attended the South Buffalo Irish Festival, and visited with several of Hugh’s cousins and family. On a sunny afternoon he led twenty of them in a song recognizing the great work of his older sister, Sr. Jane Muldoon, who celebrated her golden jubilee as a Sister of Mercy in 2007.
Hugh dedicated his life to the connecting and uplifting of the people around him, frequently pushing someone else into any spotlight directed towards him. He received numerous accolades including the Carbondale NAACP’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award in 2010, the Church of the Good Shepherd Delegate of the Word in 2019, the WSIU Mister Rogers Neighborly Award in 2019, and in 2013 he was the inaugural recipient of the Hugh Muldoon and Margie Parker Peacemaker Award.
The recent outpouring of positive words and thoughts about Hugh could fill volumes; here are three that seem to encapsulate the sentiments shared by so many.
John Holt, who served as Rotary president in 1994 and 1995, said, “He challenged the edge of my comfort zone.”
Steve Falcone, friend, neighbor, and fellow poet, wrote, “He walked with steps of purpose enriching the lives of all.”
Bob Swenson, long-time friend and peace movement collaborator, gave words to an essence of Hugh’s life when he said that he “never saw a room he walked into that didn’t come out better by his presence.”
Hugh is survived by his wife of 25 years, Judy Ashby, and her son, David Wikel of Lawrence, KS; along with his children: Ryan and wife Michelle and sons Aidan and Gabriel of Alexandria, VA; Cory and wife Laura Mullkoff and sons Bayard and Eugene of Chicago, IL; and daughter Maureen and husband Scott Lothes of Madison, WI. He was preceded into the next adventure by his brother, John Muldoon of Hawaii, while sisters Jane Muldoon and Ann Galli and family survive them in Buffalo, NY.
A celebration of Hugh’s life and his gifts to all of us will be held on Saturday, November 6, beginning at 3:00 p.m. at the Newman Center in Carbondale, Illinois. An extended communion of food, fellowship, and music will follow. Robust safety measures will be in place due to COVID-19. In the spirit of Hugh’s potlucks, attendees are welcome to bring drinks (in individual containers) or easy-to-share finger foods. For health concerns, the family requests no large dishes. Sandwiches will be provided. Remote/virtual attendance for the celebration will also be available.
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In lieu of flowers and food, memorials may be made to Pastors for Peace, IFCO, P.O. Box 1368, Orange, NJ, 07051-1368 (you can donate online at https://ifconews.org), or to the movement of your choice that supports peace and healing.
If you have stories or photos you would like to share about Hugh, please upload them to this google form here to share with his family and friends. If you don’t have a gmail address you can share using this dropbox folder or email them to email@example.com.
Meredith Funeral Home in Carbondale assisted the family with arrangements. To leave a story or memory of Hugh, visit www.meredithfh.com
Saturday, November 6, 2021
Starts at 3:00 pm (Eastern time)
In the spirit of Hugh’s potlucks, attendees are welcome to bring drinks (in individual containers) or easy-to-share finger foods. For health concerns, the family requests no large dishes.