By Tom Ayres, Senior Staff Writer
By the time he was a young man, with a budding career as a highly regarded international economist, former Woodstock resident Hugh “Hugo” Belton had traveled many roads.
He’d herded sheep in Australia, blasted roads through the mountains of Chile using dynamite, and learned the rudiments of seafaring on a British cargo ship. Such were the early occupational exploits of young Hugo Belton, the son of a career diplomat who landed his precocious child a flurry of wildly diverse jobs before Hugo had even hit young adulthood.
Many roads well-traveled eventually brought Hugo Belton and his wife, Jennifer DeToro Belton, to Woodstock for six years from 2010 to 2016, where their hearts and minds became immersed in Vermont and the community they found there.
But that’s near the end of Belton’s remarkable story and this is just the beginning.
Over the course of the day on Monday, Jennifer Belton, who capped her career as a librarian as the director of the Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock, regaled a rapt listener with numerous tales of her late husband’s eventful life. And what a life it was for Belton, who passed away at home in Westfield, Ind. on Feb. 5, surrounded by family after many years of struggling with Parkinson’s disease.
“I first met Hugo at the Office of Management and Budget in Washington,” Jennifer said, the deep-seated affection of 40-plus years evident in her voice as she spoke about the jobs both Beltons had in the OMB, part of the Executive Office of President Jimmy Carter. Equipped with a B.A. in Economics from the University of Oregon and an M.A. from the University of Texas, Hugo Belton was a celebrated economist on the rise, serving as a senior management analyst with the Executive Office, where Jennifer started the first library for a sitting President.
“We were both married to different people and we were just friends,” Jennifer recollected. “But then I started to work at the old Executive Office Building, across the street from the new EOB and adjacent to the White House, and Hugo called me up for lunch. And I thought that was unusual, because people who work in the new EOB don’t call people in the old EOB — I don’t know why, but that was the case that when you make the transition from one building to another you don’t usually hang out with the old team. We went to lunch and he said he’d gone to the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian and seen an exhibit and that he’d applied for an NEA grant to study woodworking in California. And I said to him, ‘Let me get this straight: you’re going to California for six months, you’re not going with your wife, and you’re not wearing a wedding ring. Is that right?’ And he said, ‘Yes’ and I said, ‘Oh, well — call me when you get back,’ Jennifer quipped, laughing brightly.
Shortly after Hugo returned to Washington from California, where he studied woodcraft under the tutelage of renowned furniture maker Art Espenet Carpenter, whose work had been shown at the Renwick Gallery, Belton stepped off the career path of an acclaimed economist and turned his life in a wholly different direction — a life’s journey that he would undertake lovingly, together with his former coworker and friend turned spouse, Jennifer.
In 1979, at age 36, Hugo founded Hugh Belton Studio Furniture Makers and set up shop in a studio on Capitol Hill — a workspace he later moved to a new home in suburban McLean, Va. He described his reinvention of himself as “upwardly aspiring, downwardly mobile,” according to Jennifer. Soon thereafter, Belton’s new wife was to play a leading role in gaining broader recognition among the Capitol Hill crowd for the aspiring master woodworker’s virtuoso creations. Jennifer, then working as the librarian and information specialist with the Washington Post, persuaded famed Post editor Ben Bradlee to commission Hugo to craft an elegant table for the newspaper’s editorial conference room, where senior newsroom editors would gather to decide on the news stories for each day’s lead pages.
The Bradlee breakthrough presaged Hugo Belton’s rise as a nationally recognized designer and manufacturer of unique, museum-quality office and home furniture, produced on commission for corporations and private residences — a life’s passion that lasted for the next 37 years, including the six years that Hugo and Jennifer Belton spent in “retirement” on College Hill Road in Woodstock, where the couple relocated after a careful review of several New England locales. Jennifer was ready for retirement and especially longed to get away from Washington, where the emotional rigors of providing day-to-day care for the Beltons’ late, 20-year-old son, Noah, who suffered from a rare neurological disorder called Alexander disease, had left the family grieving, sad, and spent.
Arriving in Woodstock, Hugo and Jennifer hired local carpenter Chris Amborse to frame a house for them on College Hill. The couple then built out their new home themselves, “hammering all the nails, putting in the walls, kitchen, bathrooms, and everything,” Jennifer remembered. “It was just the sweetest house and I miss it terribly,” she added. Hugo reestablished his Washington and McLean workspace and continued to craft fine furniture. The pair immersed themselves in their new environment, where Hugo joined the Vermont Woodworkers Guild and served as a mentor to aspiring woodworkers while Jennifer stepped up to lead the Norman Williams Library for several years. Hugo’s late-life handiwork now adorns homes and businesses throughout the Upper Valley, much as it did in the nation’s capital and around the country for nearly four decades.
By 2016, however, the affliction that had challenged Belton for years — Parkinson’s disease, possibly tied to a toxic sheep vaccine he’d been exposed to on that Australian farm in his teen years — had worsened significantly. The couple made the decision to relocate from Woodstock to live near their daughters, Sarah and Julia, in Westfield, Ind., a northern suburb of Indianapolis. There Hugo savored his final years with family and newfound friends, always the creative spirit and inveterate storyteller, writing a memoir detailing his extensive world travels and inventive life, and continuing as the warm, funny, perpetual jokester that Jennifer, the children, Woodstock friends and neighbors, and people the world over had come to love over the nearly 80 years of his life.
“It was on January 20 that the palliative care team decided that it was time for Hugo to go into hospice care,” Jennifer Belton said of a fateful day just one month ago. “For those last weeks, he told more jokes and stories, even as we were preparing for him to pass and he could barely speak.”
Each night, as Jennifer Belton readies for sleep, she clambers up a small ladder onto a tall, gloriously curved sleigh bed that Hugo Belton crafted many years ago, creating its luscious lines using a steam table to bend the wood into rounded shapes resembling the runners of a horse-drawn sled, much like one that might have traversed a snowy Vermont woodland in times of yore.
The marvelous piece of furniture is yet another reminder that the memories of Hugo Belton that are imbued in his life’s work and in the hearts and minds of his loved ones — as well as in the memories of the countless friends, fellow craftspeople, coworkers, patrons, and acquaintances of eight decades — are immeasurably rich indeed.