Back in February of 2012 and ‘13, the Town Crier’s Rick Cooke wrote five different “inspirational stories” featuring Wilmington and Tewksbury people who were influential to Cookie.
This story below is on the late Hugh Wiberg, who was a WHS Athletics fanatic, as well as a pumpkin fanatic. We thought since this is pumpkin season, that we would re-run this story that originally ran in the February 20, 2013 edition.
The voice on the phone sounded willing, but not all that able. Hugh Wiberg, one of the nicest men that this writer has ever met, was just being honest. “Thanks for calling Rick, but I’d rather not do an interview right now. I’m just not up to it.” Rather than be persistent, I simply thanked him for his time and all that he had done for me over many years. It was years ago that Wiberg — author, outdoorsman, feeder of wild birds, musician, photographer, friend, husband, father, grandfather and last but certainly not least, a gardener known for growing and displaying giant pumpkins — took a young writer under his wing and showed him the ways of Wilmington.
Wiberg not only knew a lot about the Town of Wilmington, but a whole lot about life as well. Lyme disease had taken its’ toll by the time I called to ask for an interview from the man with the quiet, steady demeanor. I never saw Hugh Wiberg angry or even the slightest bit perturbed. He was always there to lend a hand not only with me but with so many people he was meeting for perhaps the very first time. When Wiberg died on October 2, 2009 at the age of 75 he was not only mourned in Wilmington, but all across New England, in the many areas where he fed wild birds, displayed his giant pumpkin hybrids — eventually named ‘squmpkins’ — or enjoyed long walks in what many of us would call the ‘wilderness.’ To Hugh, those walks were times when he would get away from the high-speed notion that devours most of us as we rush through life.
Wiberg’s march was very much to his own beat. He could have been called jack of many trades, but in the end, Wiberg was a lover of life to the fullest. He was a quiet inspiration always seeming to be at peace with life — right up until the day that he died. Hugh often was there to give some quiet advice. He would pull me aside and make some gentle suggestion that would affect me not only for the rest of the day but ultimately, for the rest of my life. For that reason, Wiberg is a major part of this ‘Inspiration’ series. Hugh Wiberg was one of the most inspiring people that I have ever met in my life. Some people you remember forever. Wiberg was one of those people. This is his story, and it is best told by Hugh’s family and friends. Former Wilmington Town Crier Editor Fred Neilson was a Wiberg friend for many years, and he has many fond memories to share as we begin this inspirational journey.
A love of the long walk and everything Wilmington
“One of Hugh’s favorite hangouts was a family cabin on the shores of Great Bay, near Exeter, New Hampshire. Great Bay is the largest estuary on the East Coast, a salt-water lake linked to the Atlantic through the Pisquaticus River. Hugh was a great lover of wildlife, and could identify a great many birds. There is no better place for this than Great Bay,” offered Neilson. “If you were driving to Maine on I-95, it would be off to the left as you approached the Kittery Bridge. But Hugh didn’t approach Great Bay on I-95. He preferred to walk. It is 44 miles from North Wilmington to the Wiberg cabin.
“Every year on Patriots Day, Hugh would set off on his pilgrimage. In the weeks leading up to April 19, you might see him on evening treks around Wilmington, working out for his annual walk. Or you might see him in the drug store buying foot therapy products. As challenging as a 44-mile walk might have been, Hugh was always up for a challenge. As his 50th birthday approached, he changed his route, increasing the mileage to 50. He continued on that path for many years.”
Neilson, as did yours truly, had many motivational moments with Wiberg in the offices of the Town Crier (which became his second home of sorts) then located in North Wilmington in what is now a commuter rail stop. Wiberg played a pivotal role in cultivating and then nurturing the spirit of Wilmington through his work as a photographer/darkroom technician at the Town Crier. In a way, Wilmington was Wiberg’s garden his pathway to life. He would contribute to his town in so many ways and at the time an important motivational tool for young people was the reporting and photographing of Wilmington High School sports. Wiberg was the free-lance sports photographer, I was the ‘cub’ reporter and Fred Neilson was the editor. The publisher of the Town Crier, Captain Larz Neilson, was an admirer of Wiberg’s vast gardening background, and often splashed pages of the newspaper with Hugh’s efforts in the growing of a very unusual plant but more on that later.
Wiberg would take photos and labor in the darkroom of the Town Crier for hours with staff photographer and advertising manager Stu Neilson. He would then compile scrapbooks for the Wilmington High School athletes. He began an ‘unsung hero’ award for the Wilmington High School football team. Hugh never took a dime for all this work, saying in his quiet, matter-of-fact way that all of this time logged off-the-clock was no big deal. For Wiberg, it was always time well-spent. He was doing the work because he loved Wilmington.
“Some of the best photos of Wilmington High School football games in the 1970’s and 80’s were taken by Hugh Wiberg,” says Fred Neilson. “He would be on the sidelines of every game, sometimes having to jump out of the way when a play would come right at him. He would take his film to the Town Crier for processing. The paper had its' choice of photos, and Hugh would keep the film. At the end of the season, he would then spend an entire Saturday in the Town Crier darkroom, making 8x10 prints, which he would then give to the players. He never took a penny for his work. Hugh was completely selfless in everything that he did.”
“He was always into Wilmington sports. It didn’t matter if he knew the kids or not,” offers daughter Heidi, who was the first girl to ever compete on the boys’ team at Wilmington High School back in 1978, eventually setting the school record in the 50-yard dash in 1981. “He really loved the Mike Esposito football years in the 1970’s. My sister Wendy was a cheerleader and my brother Hugo was in the band. When I got to high school and ran track (she was instrumental in getting the first girls’ track team started in 1979) that was fun for him too. He loved to take pictures. He would come to so many of my track meets. Taking pictures was both a passion and a hobby for him. Now I love photography, so I definitely get that from him.”
Her father was the official photographer at his daughter’s 25th high school reunion. Heidi holds on to those special memories of her dad and those years spent at Wilmington High School.
“He loved Wilmington. He lived there his whole life — he never wanted to move. He had a great network of friends who grew up in this town. He touched so many lives.”
A “silly old granddad” and a one-of-a-kind father
Wiberg was born February 28, 1933 to parents who immigrated to this country from Sweden. They met when they both played in a Salvation Army Church Band, and their son would go on to be an accomplished musician himself, playing a brass instrument known as the euphonium, which is slightly larger than a trumpet and smaller than a tuba.
Wiberg’s time years playing music is not well-known, because like most everything else in his life, he kept it to himself. There was always music playing in the Wiberg home. There was singing, and of course there was always dad hard at work practicing his euphonium. He enjoyed playing in the ‘New England Brass Band’ with his brothers and cousins, even recording several times and then playing concerts at Boston’s Symphony Hall.
There were also the twice a year concerts at the Wilmington Congregational Church. Hugh loved to play solos on the euphonium, but even then he never really took center stage. There were so many times when Wiberg’s love of music and family would take center stage instead. His son remembers.
“One of my earliest and distinct memories is way back about 1960,” offers Hugo Wiberg. “This was what I call the ‘before sisters’ period when we lived in Cambridge in four rooms rented from my mom’s father George Jackson. Dad was working at Carter’s Ink on the River in Cambridge and making 54 dollars a week. My dad had been raised by Salvation Army ministers Hugo and Mary, and an important part of that upbringing was being trained in music, specifically brass banding, and when I came along, my dad was considered one of the best, if not the best euphonium player in New England. In fact, the Salvation Army created a staff band in New York composed of the best players in the country, and I’m told that dad could have been given a job in their headquarters just so they could have them play in their band.
“My dad had never been much for big cities and he was never much for big changes in his life. He was happy where he was here in Wilmington, where he could live near his brothers and be close to his summer destination — Week’s Cabins in Greenland, New Hampshire.”
“Dad was usually scheduled to play a solo with a 25-piece brass band that accompanied the Boston band each year. To get it just right, he would practice the piece over and over again until it became second nature to him. He would give special attention to the most difficult parts, playing them until they flowed out of the horn.
“We would hear him practicing in his bedroom, and I was drawn to my dad by this wonderful music. I was about five years old, and I thought that he was playing these concerts just for me. I would get up on my parents’ bed and use it like a trampoline, jumping and bouncing and enjoying every minute, and then when I got to share my joy of that concert with over 100 people I remember being so proud of my dad.”
“My dad loved to challenge himself, and he did this in many ways throughout his life,” said daughter Wendy. “He played in both the Salvation Army Band and the New England Brass band, and I have memories of him practicing his horn for hours in his bedroom before the many solos that he performed so beautifully. He would practice at what seemed like record-breaking speed, telling me that if he could play that fast he would be able to play at the regular tempo easily.
“On Patriots Day, when others were running the Boston Marathon, he would be walking up Middlesex Avenue to his cabin in Greenland, New Hampshire. Various people would join him on this trek, including my brother one year, my sister another, and few of my cousins as well. My dad also challenged himself by growing these gigantic pumpkins, and sharing that joy by displaying those carved ‘monstrosities’ at the Wilmington Horribles Parade and carving and lighting huge jack-o-lanterns at nursing homes. He started the pumpkin weigh-off at the Topsfield Fair, an accomplishment that he was quite proud of. One last crazy example of how my dad would challenge himself was he taught himself how to say words backwards. Wilmington spelled backwards is ‘not-gnim-liw.”
“He was an avid gardener and birder both of which he wrote books about,” notes Hugo. “But no story about my dad would be complete without mentioning what an awesome granddad he was. To say that he got a kick out of every cute word and facial expression of his grandchildren would be an understatement. He was the quintessential playmate, dancing around the kitchen with the little ones, read them an endless number of books, willing to read their favorites over and over like only a grandparent could. He would allow his granddaughter to brush his hair up into a point at the top of his head and to put make-up on him a great visual memory that always puts a smile on my face. I’m so thankful for all of those memories. He was a one-of-a-kind dad.”
Always the team player, Wiberg loved the unusual and enjoyed exploring some little-known tidbits of life. But most of all, Hugh loved his family.
Wiberg moved to Wilmington in 1961, and raised children Hugo, Wendy and Heidi for 48 years in the house on Andover Street. Wiberg came from large family with eight brothers and sisters, and with his first wife Dorothy and then his spouse of 22 years Barbara, managed to keep those family ties strong through all of his varied interests. Wiberg always came back to family and one of those long walks in the woods. Eventually, according to youngest daughter Heidi, he would come to be known as just “silly old granddad” to his six grandchildren. Hugh would come home, take off a heavy jacket and his trademark cap, grab a chair and read or play with the grandkids.
“He wasn’t this kind of dynamic, inspirational figure,” says Heidi (Wiberg) Hastings. “It was kind of a quiet inspiration. It was him leading by example. He never sat down with us and said, ‘don’t do this or don’t do that.’ He just always taught us to not sweat the small stuff. That was one of his big mantras. He always said that life is too short to get all stressed out. He was always very calm and quiet. He never yelled. He had his share of stresses in life, but he would deal with that by spending time with nature and enjoying his passions. Yet he always found time for his family.”
Wiberg would spend 25 years selling school supplies before heading into semi-retirement at age 55, managing a well-known gardening shop. Fruits, vegetables and gardens made up much of Wiberg’s life. The family backyard was divided into two gardens- one for produce and the other for many flowering plants. Wiberg loved working with the soil, and the gardens were a big passion. Eventually, Hugh wrote his first book based largely on that passion — ‘Backyard Vegetable Gardening’.
“He was always a big gardener. We had an enormous vegetable garden on one side, and a big flower garden on the other side of the house,” offers Heidi. “We grew up eating nothing but fresh fruit and vegetables. He was growing Hungarian squash and pumpkins, and the bees cross-pollinated the plants. He nicknamed it ‘The Squmpkin.’ It had this ugliness and bigness about it. It was never perfectly round. It was a dark orange. He got the word added to the Grower’s Vocabulary. Every year he would try to grow one bigger — he was always interested in the science and biology aspect of it.
“Eventually he went back to just growing the giant pumpkins in the early 1980’s. They were about 600-700 pounds and lots of people were doing it. We used to call them the ‘pumpkin crazy’ guys and women. He just wanted to share his joy of gardening and the outdoors with people. He didn’t know how to use a computer, so Barbara typed out everything. Even when the pumpkin growing became very competitive, my dad would say ‘I just do this for fun.”
“My dad created the Pumpkin Weigh-Off at the Topsfield Fair. When he passed away, they planted a tree that is at the entrance at the fair. They remembered that my dad had convinced the fair’s officials to move the weigh-off from the last day of the fair to the first for a better promotional push. It worked, because people saw the pumpkins on all three Boston television stations and then naturally wanted to come to the fair and see the pumpkins. Every October you start seeing giant pumpkins everywhere, and we think about my dad. It is so ironic that he passed away in October.”
Books and headlines aplenty
There were the stories, photos and the headlines in various publications from all over New England. Hugh became known quite naturally as ‘The Pumpkin Guy’- and it was just fine with him. For Wiberg, it was all about sharing his joy with others. The stories with their eye-catching headlines seemed to pop up annually as the fall growing season began. “A Pioneer of Growing Giant Cucurbits” — “New Jersey giants set pumpkin record” — “A gourdeous entry from Wilmington — Annual quest for the great pumpkin stems from a man’s labor of love” — “Wilmington man grows a gourdeous entry” — and finally, “How to grow a giant pumpkin.”
Wiberg even helped put together a newsletter devoted to pumpkin growing. There was an association developing among these competitive pumpkin growers. There was a cash prize, but Wiberg could have cared less. He shared secrets and gave away seeds. He brought the pumpkins to schools and amazed the children.
A Linda Weltner column in an April, 1996 edition of the Boston Globe would sum up this time in Wiberg’s life ever so aptly. “According to a three-page essay on pumpkin seed germination sent to me by pumpkin guru Hugh Wiberg (whose claim to fame is that back in 1971 he invented the name ‘squmpkin’ for a cross between a Hungarian squash and a Big Max pumpkin — it’s a bit complicated.”
The recipe for growing the pumpkins and the explanation that followed might have seemed a bit convoluted, but Wiberg preferred to keep things simple when it came to what mattered to him the most. He loved helping and encouraging others so they could share in all that made his life so satisfying. What made this quiet man’s life so inspiring to others? What was it about Wiberg that saw him caring about other people so unconditionally? So many of us keep a running tab on what makes a friendship work. Wiberg never kept score. He sought nothing in return for a simple act of kindness. His family shared much of what made Wiberg so special.
His daughter Heidi remembers that her dad got to spend his years in retirement tackling those many interests with all of the quiet passion that he had for life. “He spent those retirement years basically pursuing all of his interests and hobbies.” One of those ‘hobbies’ would eventually lead to Wiberg hobnobbing with the likes of Martha Stewart and appearing many times on WBZ with host Dave Maynard. Wiberg ultimately would help to put the Topsfield Fair on the map. The fair would become a ‘must-attend’ event, when thousands would flock to see Wiberg’s unusual ‘giant’ creation. Hugh’s wife Barbara remembers one of the first pumpkins that garnered her rather low-key husband much attention.
“The first of Hugh’s ‘big’ pumpkins was brought to the Topsfield Fair in October of 1983. Hugh had planned to take the ‘beast’ — which weighed over 450 pounds to Buffalo, New York to be weighed at the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth site. For six days, the pumpkin was on a rotating stand powered by a one horse motor, Needless to say, when Hugh went to lift the pumpkin, he put his hand right through the bottom! Lesson learned. The pumpkin had been cooked through and never made it to Buffalo.”
A love of the outdoors takes its’ toll
Eventually Wiberg’s love of the outdoors would take its’ toll, as Hugh was stricken with Lyme disease not once, but three times. His book ‘Hand Feeding Wild Birds’ would depict in close-up photographs Wiberg’s unique ability to make friends with and eventually feed wild birds. The photographs and the story are remarkable. That love of the outdoors did however lead to an illness from which Wiberg never fully recovered. His daughter Heidi provided the heart-wrenching, yet courageous details of her dad’s illness.
“With the pumpkins and the birds... and of course he was out there in the woods with the deer... he spent a lot of the time in those areas where there are deer ticks that spread Lyme disease,” Heidi recalls. “The Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary became like his second home. He loved it there. He was a lot like Thoreau in that he really liked to be by himself. He really liked to be one with nature. He would feed the birds in the winter, and he discovered that in the winter the birds were more likely to get close to him when they were starving and needed the food. They became his little friends. He would always wear the same jacket and hat. He said that the same birds would fly to his hand every time. He would tell us that he really believed that the birds recognized him. They knew that this person was constantly coming and bringing them food. This thrilled him so much and that became the book. He spent years photographing these birds coming to his hand.”
Wiberg fell ill for the first time in the early 1990’s, than contracted Lyme disease again around 1995. There would be a third bout with the disease around 2003 according to his daughter. In 2005, Wiberg would fall into a deep depression, unusual for a man who for so many years and found something to be optimistic about virtually every day of his life. His daughter Heidi watched as her father began his first real battle with an illness of any kind.
“He felt really crappy day after day and this is somebody who was never sick for his entire life. I would remind him of this when he was feeling down. I would say, dad... remember that you went 70 years without ever having even a cold.” The child that the father had often inspired was now offering more than a handful of inspiration herself.
Wiberg’s family has a history of Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2006 he was showing signs of significant memory loss. The Lyme disease had weakened his heart and his mind, but fortunately for his family, it never touched Wiberg’s soul. He would take the time to play with his grandchildren and walk to the corner store to buy the Town Crier. Hugh wanted to know everything about the Town of Wilmington, the town that he loved and the town that he would never leave.
“Around 2007 he started falling down,” remembers Heidi. “The third time that he fell, that’s what landed him in the hospital. He never came home.”
A dad’s challenge
“When I was about 14-years-old, my dad started challenging me to race,” Heidi Wiberg recalls. “He saw that there was some potential there, so he would always say — ‘let’s race in the backyard. He ran track in college. He was a sprinter. That’s another thing that I inherited from him. He had long legs and he was fast. At the start of our races he would always beat me, but as the years went on the races would get closer and closer. I’ll never forget the day that I finally beat him. He once told me that it would happen eventually, because he knew that he was getting older and slowing down, and I was getting stronger and faster.
“Not long after I began winning those races my dad introduced me to Coach Kelley at Wilmington High School. He wanted me to run track. He definitely was my inspiration to begin running high school track.”
When Wiberg introduced his daughter to the legendary WHS’ track coach Frank Kelley, another legend of sorts was created, in that Heidi became the first girl to run with the boys’ team at the high school. She ran the 50, 100 and even the 200-yard dashes at Wilmington High School. Heidi also ran cross-country, which she hated but still competed in at the request of Coach Kelley. All of Heidi’s efforts combined with Kelley’s support led to the first-ever Wilmington High School girls’ winter track team. None of this would have been possible if not for a dad’s challenge to a race in the backyard.
A town’s loses its’ ‘conqueror’
Some might say that Wiberg as a man would be hard to define. His life reflected so many interests and his friends all might have vast and different memories of the man. Ultimately, what the Town of Wilmington lost when Wiberg died was a man who never backed away from a challenge. Hugh would read this and quietly chuckle I’m sure. He would think that this recognition was too much and over-the-top, and be somewhat embarrassed by it all.
Wiberg was all about the simple life and a quiet walk in the woods. His son Hugh points to a You Tube video of his dad performing a piece on his euphonium called ‘The Conqueror’. Wiberg would surely like the fact that if he could ever write his own epitaph, the lyrics to this piece would capture the way that he lived his life.
“I’m a soldier bound for glory, I’m a soldier going home; Come hear me tell my story — All who love the savior come. I will tell you what induced me in the glorious fight to start — ‘twas the Savior’s loving kindness that overcame and won my heart. When I first commenced to warfare, many said, ‘he’ll run away’ — but their words would have been unfounded in the fight I am today. When death’s dark, swelling river, like a warrior I shall come, then I mean to shout salvation! — and go singing glory home.”
Hugh Wiberg lived his life much like the quiet warrior — never giving up when he fell ill and always looking to give some simple advice when asked. He loved his town, his solitude, and most importantly, his family. Although that final interview never happened, we have made amends to Wiberg for not saying that final goodbye. This one’s for you, my friend.
His daughter Heidi leaves us with a smile and a thought as to just what her dad might be thinking right about now. “There was a new world’s record set at this year’s Topsfield Fair — a 2,009 pound pumpkin — that’s a ton,” she says. “Dad is shaking his head somewhere in his garden in heaven saying ‘well, whatta you know? I never thought I’d see the day’ and getting quite a kick out of the whole thing.”
(Comments regarding this ‘Inspiration’ series can be sent to email@example.com).