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Brandenburg devoted to volunteering

March 29, 2006|by JANET HEIM

Editor's note: There are a lot of people you see around town that you recognize, but don't know anything about. People like ...

Name: Hugh Brandenburg

Age: 81

Occupation: Retired Spanish teacher

Hometown: Hagerstown

Where would you see Brandenburg?: For more than 25 years, Brandenburg has been volunteering at Western Maryland Hospital Center. He said he has become attached to the patients and staff, who feel like part of his family.

"It's been a devotion. Sometimes, I think it's an obsession. I love it," Brandenburg said of his volunteer work at the hospital center, where he has logged more than 40,000 hours.

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"I love long-term friendships," he said.

He said if he can bring a little joy to the patients each day, then he feels like he has made a contribution. Brandenburg relates easily to the patients, having pushed himself beyond the limits of the chronic fatigue he has battled most of his life.

Brandenburg said he was a healthy, active child until age 9, when he fell out of the family car traveling at about 50 mph. He and his parents and older brother were headed to Chicago for the 1934 World's Fair. Brandenburg was hospitalized in Indiana for two weeks with a hairline fracture to his skull before the family continued their journey, unaware how poorly their youngest son was feeling.

As a result, Brandenburg said he's sought out adventures to make up for the fatigue. During summer breaks from college, he worked at a magnesite plant in Cape May, N.J., took summer sessions at University of Mexico, worked at an apricot canning plant in San Jose, Calif., and explored Europe for three months when he was in his 20s.

His mother died when he was 17, and although his father didn't encourage his adventures, he didn't discourage them.

At the hospital center, Brandenburg's skills in Spanish and photography have enhanced his interaction at the facility. He's been teaching Spanish to the chaplain at the hospital center three times a week and has a special bond with a Mexican patient.

The patient has been at the hospital center for more than seven years, since an automobile accident left him paralyzed below the waist and with limited use of his arms. With little knowledge of English, the patient had trouble communicating until Brandenburg, who speaks fluent Spanish, stopped in for a visit.

Inspired by his high school language teacher, Brandenburg majored in romance languages at Gettysburg (Pa.) College, then got a master's degree at University of Texas, where he taught Spanish for 10 years.

Brandenburg, who grew up on Dewey Avenue and lives on Northern Avenue, remembers purchasing his first camera at the Hays Store in downtown Hagerstown when he worked there as a teen.

He said he's been taking photographs of birds for 49 years. His photos have been published in Birds & Blooms magazine 15 times.

When asked how he started volunteering at Western Maryland, Brandenburg said with a laugh, "It was the birds."

He was giving a speech on birds at the Leitersburg Ruritan and the volunteer coordinator for the hospital center happened to be in the audience. She asked if Brandenburg would be willing to speak to patients at the hospital center. He agreed and has been volunteering there ever since.

A volunteer award has been named in his honor, one that is given to a volunteer who goes above and beyond what is expected. He was recognized in 1998 as Washington County's Most Wonderful Citizen and last year by the Community Foundation of Washington County's People's Choice Award.

In addition to daily visits to the hospital center, Brandenburg volunteers at his church, Trinity Lutheran Church in Hagerstown, and at the Cumberland Valley Photo Salon at the Washington County Fine Arts Museum.

"My life really is this hospital, the church and the art museum," Brandenburg said.

Hobbies: Besides photography, Brandenburg enjoys singing. He sang in an a cappella group all four years he was at Gettysburg College, in a fraternity quartet in college and with a chapter of his fraternity at University of Texas. He's been known to sing to the patients at Western Maryland Hospital Center, too.

What does Brandenburg like best about Washington County?: "I like its diversity," said Brandenburg, comparing Washington County to the hot, dry climate of Texas.

He enjoys the mountains and the more-relaxed atmosphere of the rural county and said he wouldn't want to live in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., or New York.

And then there's the people.

"I do have steadfast friends and I appreciate that very much," Brandenburg said.

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