Joe Hudson, a Sussex native, farmer, pilot, businessman, philanthropist, died April 25. The Cape Gazette asked publisher emeritus and Joe’s longtime friend Dennis Forney to write a little about Hudson, his life and his legacy.
Joe Hudson loved to tell stories and he loved people. That worked out well for him. Joe knew lots of people, had lots of friends, and he had lots of stories to tell.
Stories about growing up poor in Sussex County in a family with 12 children. Stories about lots and lots of cousins. His mother was also one of 12. Raising and skinning rabbits to sell to neighbors, delivering newspapers, anything to make a buck and help his mother and her ever-expanding brood to get by.
He told stories about his decades as a farmer, growing green beans and contracting busloads of eastern European immigrants from Baltimore to pick them during harvest season, before the days of mechanization.
Joe’s decades of flying provided him with endless hours of material. Though he was serious about his schooling, a graduate of a small class at Lewes High School, Joe would never be accused of being a traditional classroom student. He learned by doing, whether on the many farms he rented, tilled and eventually owned, or in the air where he felt most free and accomplished.
Most of the time when he was sitting in classes, he itched to be hitchhiking, bicycling, walking or bumming rides to Rehoboth Airport. There, along with his beloved friend Ted Freeman – who went on to become a NASA astronaut – Joe learned the joy of flying. At 16, it was tough to keep him away from the planes and runway, and the people who flew and kept the planes flying. Joe listened to self-made people like John Rollins when piloting successful businessmen up and down the East Coast. And he learned.
Somewhere along the line, taking risks and its close kin entrepreneurialism baked their way into Joe’s hardwiring. One of his frequently told stories involved the grandfather that he knew little and saw even less of. His grandmother spoke infrequently about the man or his heritage. But Joe remembered distinctly his grandmother describing her mysterious mate in just a few words. He was, she said, an honest, seafaring man.
That smattering of information gave Joe’s imagination and lust for adventure plenty of room to roam.
Joe’s first work as a young pilot took him out over the ocean where he spotted and radioed positions of vast schools of oily menhaden for Otis Smith and his Lewes Fish Products fleet of purse-seining trawlers. As a crop duster, Joe combined his quickly developing passion with a careful fearlessness. To many who knew him, Joe exemplified the time-tested adage from the world of flying: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are few old, bold pilots.”
He knew that alcohol and piloting were a dangerous combination. He was never a drinker.
Goggled blue eyes and big toothy smile behind the controls of one of his open-cockpit Stearmans, Joe loved the exhilaration of flying low over fields of soybeans. He flipped switches, dispensed carefully calibrated concoctions and helped save crops from devastating pests. He knew the importance of his work from his own experience as a farmer.
As he swooped up quickly at steep, stall-tempting angles to clear power lines and stands of trees, what appeared to be aerial acrobatics entertained thousands of motorists over the years who would pull off onto highway shoulders to watch his unique work.
Some would say Joe Hudson was lucky. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. Famous Packers football coach Vince Lombardi once said that luck amounts to preparation meeting opportunity. But just as the winds of fate can sometimes blow favorably, they can also turn.
Few who listened to Joe’s stories, always told in a naturally engaging fashion with easygoing humor, would say he was lucky the day he was flying over a state health complex at Delaware City and struck the top of a flagpole standing taller than he realized. The crash sent him and his aircraft to the ground. They might say, however, that Lady Luck was nearby when a herd of doctors meeting at a conference there that day rushed out to ensure Joe survived.
Though he usually steered clear of more somber topics, Joe certainly wouldn’t say he was lucky in having outlived his two sons, Craig and Jody. Nor could he ever reconcile or justify personally, silently, his having outlived his accomplished classmate Ted, the astronaut, who died tragically and heroically during a test-pilot exercise in Texas while wrestling to keep his snow goose-compromised jet in the air long enough to avoid crashing into a suburban neighborhood.
Following one of the principal edicts in Dale Carnegie’s famous book, “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” Joe was not one to criticize or complain.
Lucky in his business success? Not for a minute. Joe had a good head for numbers, taken to heart during his years at Lewes High School, and though he was a natural risk taker, he mitigated that risk by thoroughly researching and studying potential business opportunities before committing himself and his resources.
One such venture that he took great satisfaction from was development of the Villages of Five Points community, in partnership with his son Craig, and Mike Lynn. Joe believed in the mixed-use concept of a walkable residential and commercial community. The community’s success affirmed Joe’s belief.
Arena’s restaurant at the heart of the village’s downtown became one of Joe’s favorite haunts in later years. Whether eating lunch there or at nearby Surf Bagel, or having coffee at Arby’s, Joe was a magnet for old friends and new. When he could no longer fly or drive, Joe reverted to his old reliable walking and hitchhiking mode of transportation. The attraction of friends and conversation – hearing and telling stories – remained a priority for his quality of life.
Most who saw the old man with his thumb out along Route 1 and bound for Lewes never realized he was a successful Sussex County businessman who gave away millions of dollars for the betterment of the community he loved. Nor did they realize he spent nearly a decade in his later years as chairman of the board of directors of Beebe Healthcare during one of its most significant periods of growth.
Joe was a long-term member of Lewes-Rehoboth Rotary Club. He fully embraced the organization’s motto of Service Above Self. At one meeting, members were asked to reveal something about themselves that others might not know. Ever cheerful and kind, generous, compassionate, thoughtful and humble, and never a swear word crossing his lips, Joe answered he was a practicing Christian with a deep faith in God.
That was a revelation to most there that night, but none were surprised.