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More Than 1,000 Pay Tribute to Col. McHugh

West Caldwell native remembered for leadership, faith and service to country.

There's at least one story of John McHugh's supreme leadership that comes to mind to all of those who knew the U.S. Army colonel.

Closest to home, it's a simple, yet poignant moment that remains with his older brother, Jim.

It was more than 30 years ago when John McHugh—only a freshman catcher for the James Caldwell High School baseball team at the time—stood his ground as a Seton Hall Prep base runner barreled into him in an attempt to dislodge the ball from his mitt at home plate.

During the collision, the runner's helmet sliced open McHugh's face, yet he still held on for the out, handed the ball to the umpire and quietly walked off the field to the dugout.

As blood dripped down the left side of McHugh's face, it was a powerful sign of the path he would lead.

"That simple play defined the type of leader he was: quiet and by example," Jim McHugh said.

A giant American flag—strung over Bloomfield Avenue from the extended ladders of two fire trucks—flapped in the wind as a crowd of more than 1,000—including immediate family and close friends—gathered to pay tribute to John McHugh Saturday at St. Aloysius Church.

A monument dedication ceremony followed at Crane Park in West Caldwell to remember the 1982 Caldwell High grad who was killed at the age of 46 by a roadside bomb on May 18 in Afghanistan.

According to Caldwell Fire Chief Tony Grenci, there were more than 500 inside the church, while another 500 gathered in Trinity Academy's auditorium to watch the more than hour-long memorial service on closed-circuit TV.

"Coming to do this at St. Aloysius, John's life comes full circle now," Msgr. Michael Desmond said in his homily. "It was here on Dec. 22, 1963 when John McHugh became a member of God's family through baptism."

Faith always remained a paramount part of McHugh's life. The West Caldwell native, who attended St. Aloysius Grammar School, remained a devout Catholic as he graduated West Point Military Academy in 1986 and became a career soldier, husband, father of five and a recent grandfather.

McHugh, who was buried in Kansas on May 27, is survived by his wife Connie of 23 years, children Michael, Kelly, Kristen, Maggie and David. McHugh is also survived by a new granddaughter, Abigail, the daughter of Michael McHugh, a U.S. Army chief warrant officer, and his wife, Angela.

In addition, McHugh is survived by his siblings, Frank, James and Mary, as well as his parents, James and Mary Ann, who now live in Caldwell and remain active members of St. Al's.

"John was equally dedicated to three separate, distinct and equally important parts of his life: His faith, his family and his country," his brother Jim said. "He did all things in life with the guidance of Jesus Christ. He looked to his Bible readings to get him through every day.

"He ran his family not with an iron fist, but with love. He was a soldier dedicated to duty, honor and country."

The former standout soccer goalkeeper and baseball catcher who grew up on Orton Road in West Caldwell will be forever remembered for his commitment and sacrifice for his country on a small monument in Crane Park in his hometown.

"This will be a fitting place for his family, his friends and the community to come and reflect at any time and for forever," said West Caldwell Mayor Joseph Tempesta, who was close friends with McHugh's two brothers while he was growing up.

"John has left a legacy of freedom. He has taught us the value of sacrifice, work and virtue. He taught us the love of family and country."

A police motorcade, including members of the Caldwell and West Caldwell police departments as well as the Essex County Sheriff's Department, led McHugh's family, close friends and the governing bodies from Caldwell and West Caldwell from the church to Crane Park.

U.S. Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, who represents New Jersey's 11th district, told the large gathering at the park how proud he was of McHugh's devout 24 years of service to the country.

"We're here to recognize an American hero. It's a privilege and honor for me to be here as a representative as Caldwell, West Caldwell and Essex County recognize one of their sons who's made the supreme sacrifice," Frelinghuysen said.

"To the McHugh family, my heart goes out to you. Your son through his life exemplified looking after others, looking after his buddies. I am here today to salute you, and may I say, on behalf of a grateful nation." 

McHugh, who may soon have a West Caldwell park named after him, was one of the highest-ranking American officers killed in Afghanistan and one of 18 who died in the Kubal suicide bombing last month. McHugh had been deployed just days earlier from his station in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

"We will never forget that John died doing what he believed in, what he was brought into this world to do. It's God's will that he took this journey. We all had a harsh dose of reality when we got word it was John who was killed in Afghanistan. It was so close to home," Tempesta said.

"Our community remembers John as truly an All-American kid from an All-American family from a small American town. This tragedy tests our faith in our religion and it tests our faith in our country. We sometimes get angry. I was angry and upset when I first got word. But we have to remember that John truly represented the best we had to offer the world. There was nobody better than John McHugh."

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