Hugo W. Cardenas

December 10, 2011|By JANET HEIM |
  • Hugo Cardenas poses for this photo taken about two weeks before his death.
Submitted Photo

Hugo Cardenas was a man of gratitude and appreciation. He was vocal in his love for his adopted country and, in return, touched the lives of many through the Spanish language classes he taught for 30 years, on the sports fields, especially soccer, and through his community involvement.

Hugo was born in Arequipa, Peru, in 1925 and settled in Hagerstown in 1959.

Julia Cardenas, Hugo's wife of 53 years, said her husband was destined to move to Washington County. His father was a great admirer of the United States and George Washington, giving his son the middle name of Washington.

Hugo had a strong desire to learn about U.S. culture and the English language, taking private English lessons to supplement what he was learning at the private boys' school he attended in Peru.

He had intended to become a chemical engineer, but when substituting for his English language teacher, discovered his love for teaching. After college, he taught English at the LaSalle Christian Brothers private school, where he had been a student.

"God was having other plans for him," Julia said.

Hugo and four childhood friends founded the Peruvian North American Cultural Institute to promote relations between the United States and Peru. The institute's success led to an invitation for Hugo to participate in a six-month cultural exchange to the United States through the U.S. Department of Education, allowing him to visit 32 states.

While visiting Maryland, Hugo came to Washington County and met Dr. William Brish, who offered Hugo a job teaching Spanish. Hugo declined so he could honor his two-year commitment to return to Peru and share the American teaching techniques he learned.

During that time, he met Julia at a tea for the cultural institute he helped found and they married in 1958. She encouraged her husband to contact Brish, whose job offer still held.

"We always wondered why he picked Hagerstown. His town in Peru is like Hagerstown — surrounded by mountains, people help you. It's the people," said son Steve Cardenas of Williamsburg, Va.

Hugo, who was known as Mr. C. or Coach Cardenas by his students, began his 30-year career teaching Spanish at North Hagerstown High School in 1959.

The couple, who had one son by then, also named Hugo, moved to Hagerstown. On a return trip to Peru, their second son Juan was born.

The Cardenas' and their two sons became U.S. citizens in 1966. Another son and a daughter completed the family, along with 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. They lived in their Fountain Head home for more than 40 years.

"He taught us to appreciate what we had and never talk bad about the president. We should never do anything to embarrass the Cardenas name. If we did, we'd have to change our name," Steve said.

Son Juan Cardenas of Hagerstown said it wasn't that the Cardenas children weren't tempted to misbehave, "but everybody knew Mom and Dad," he said.

When Hugo learned that his college degree from Peru did not transfer to the United States, he got a bachelor's degree from Shippensburg University and earned a master's degree from Millersville University in 1978, all while teaching full time and helping raise a family. He had 10 credits toward a Ph.D.

Julia learned English after the couple moved here. The family spoke primarily Spanish at home, so the children would be fluent in the language.

The Cardenas children also took Spanish while students at North High, so they could learn to conjugate words and to fulfill foreign language requirements for college. They enjoyed attending the same school their father taught at.  

In addition to teaching Spanish at North High, Hugo taught graduate courses for teachers at Millersville University for 15 summers and started a Spanish language summer camp for high school students there that was expanded to Hagerstown. He taught evening classes at Hood College for many years and at Hagerstown Junior College.

While Hugo nurtured his American students, he welcomed foreign exchange students, to help ease their anxiety about being away from home.

Juan remembers his father telling exchange students why he loved and respected this country, urging them to observe and compare the culture to their own and take the good parts back home with them.

Many of the visiting students missed playing soccer, which was also a passion of Hugo's. He started a soccer club in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then in 1974, established a soccer team at North High.

"Growing up, we loved all sports, but soccer was his sport, so we all played soccer," Steve said.

Recognizing the need for athletes to start playing the sport at a younger age, Hugo secured business sponsors for four teams and started the Hagerstown Youth Soccer program, which grew exponentially over time.

"He wanted the sport to become as popular to us as it was to him. But he didn't just wish for that — he made it happen," said Steve in his remarks at the funeral.

Hugo's love for this country extended to the local community, which led him to join the Longmeadow Lions Club in 1968, where their motto of "We Serve" matched Hugo's philosophy.

He served two terms as club president, one term as zone chairman and 16 years as International Relations chair, earning the Melvin Jones Award in 1994, the highest award given by the Lions Club.

Hugo also helped establish an eye bank in his hometown in Peru. He represented the Longmeadow Lions Club while promoting good relations on trips to visit clubs in Spain, Argentina, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico.

He also made time to translate "at all hours of the day or night" for Washington County Hospital, Hagerstown Police Department, Washington County Sheriff's Department and Maryland State Police.

"He helped everybody. He had a trust in people," Juan said.

His connections were evident when the family was out in public.

"Any time we get together and go out, people approach us. It's a constant," said daughter Julie Bossart, who now lives in Manassas, Va.

"There was always somebody who knew him," wife Julia said.

Hugo taught his children the value of networking early on. He encouraged them to introduce themselves and make connections.

There was a chance meeting with tennis player Chris Evert at the Cardenas' Fountain Head home, when a former student of Hugo's, who was dating her, stopped by the house.

While Hugo was in Washington, D.C., for an annual school field trip to see the cherry blossoms, one of his students accidentally bumped into Amy Carter and Hugo got to meet President Jimmy Carter.

Julie was a fan of Paul Newman. Her father took her to see him drive in a car race in Summit  Point, W.Va., getting her access to Newman when Hugo was mistaken for the media while taking 8-mm movies.

Julie said her father got a photograph of her with Newman, but laments that Hugo cut off Newman's forehead in the picture.

"He wouldn't give up. He was persistent," Julie said.

"Whatever we wanted or needed, he tried his best," Juan said.

Besides being an educator, Hugo was always learning himself. Juan said he can't bear to part with the back issues of Reader's Digest with highlighted words his father didn't know. Hugo would make a point to look up those highlighted words, always adding to his knowledge.

"He was one of the most admirable, respectable men I have ever known. He inspired me to return to teaching after many years away from the classroom and I strive to be as dedicated and devoted to my students as he was to his," wrote daughter-in-law Julie Ann Cardenas of Hagerstown in an email.

Hugo died of complications from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. He lived at home until about 2 1/2 years ago, then moved to Providence Place.

Julia said Hugo didn't speak much after he got sick, but never stopped being a teacher.

"When you would ask 'How do you say this?', it was like he woke up. Two days before he died, he was still correcting Julie," she said.

Hugo loved to dance and when he heard the strains of a mambo song about two weeks before he died, he grabbed his wife's hand and asked her if she'd like to dance.

"Even that he remembered," said Julia, adding that their first date was to hear Pérez Prado, who was know as the King of Mambo.

"Remember where we're from and remember where we are," Juan said his father advised his family.

Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs "A Life Remembered." Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Hugo W. Cardenas, who died Nov. 28 at the age of 86. His obituary was published in the Nov. 30 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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