In Memoriam: Hugh C. MacDougall, 1932-2021

Hugh Cooke MacDougall, who founded the James Fenimore Cooper Society in 1989, passed away on March 6, 2021, in his hometown, the village of Cooperstown, New York. He was eighty-eight years old.


Hugh, a career diplomat for the U.S. State Department, became interested in James Fenimore Cooper around 1980, when he and his wife Eleanore (who passed away in 2015) began to think of returning to Cooperstown for their retirement. Upon returning from Burma in 1984, Hugh began attending the Cooper Conference at SUNY Oneonta, and in 1989, he not only delivered his first paper there but also proposed the founding of an author society dedicated to the study and appreciation of Cooper.

From the start, Hugh’s efforts aimed to reach both scholarly and non-scholarly audiences, with a strong emphasis on promoting Cooper’s legacy through outreach, making Cooper-related materials and knowledge widely accessible. Such efforts led Hugh to create pamphlets (including “Reading Cooper for Pleasure”), a “Miscellaneous Papers” series of Cooper’s fugitive writings and other Cooper-related aids (including his very useful “Where Was James?” and his cataloging of Cooper’s epigraph sources), a “Cooper Bookshelf” column for the Cooperstown Freeman’s Journal, and, most notably, the Cooper Society website, one of the most comprehensive author resources on the Web.

Hugh also gave informal talks around the Cooperstown area and presented a paper at nearly every Cooper Conference he attended, speaking both to the scholars and to the undergraduate students in the audience. Hugh was exhaustive in his search for knowledge and unfailingly generous in sharing it.

After founding the Cooper Society, Hugh designated himself Secretary-Treasurer but ran the organization nearly single-handedly, editing its Newsletter, handling all of its membership duties, and more. When, at Hugh’s urging, the Society set itself on a more permanent institutional footing in 2007 as a federally-recognized 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, Hugh continued as Corresponding Secretary, his choice of titles echoing that under which Cooper (at that time, just “James Cooper” without the “Fenimore”) served the Otsego County Agricultural Society in 1817. Hugh served in this role until 2020, taking special delight in continuing the “Ask Fenimore” service he had created years earlier to answer questions about Cooper from scholars, students, local history buffs, book collectors, recreational readers and others from all over the world. Of course, the Cooper Society was only one part of Hugh’s richly lived life — though a significant one that became close to his heart.

Patrick Dickerson of the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta wrote the following synopsis of Hugh’s life and career following an interview with him in 2012, when Hugh was eighty years old. It provides an excellent overview of the rich life Hugh lived — the last three-plus decades of which enriched the lives of all in the Cooper Society:

Hugh C. MacDougall is a former diplomat, a scholar, and a civil servant. He was born in Boston, MA on August 30, 1932 to Hugh C. McDougall of Ontario and Ursula Cooke of Cooperstown, NY. As his parents both traveled considerably in their careers, MacDougall grew up in homes throughout the northeast, from Boston, to Vermont, to Cooperstown, and to Manhattan in New York City. His parents began the continually progressive Putney School (high school) in Putney, VT, which Hugh attended. He continued his studies in Sociology at Harvard College and later Law and International Affairs at the Columbia Law School.

Foreign affairs first became a part of his life in Luanda, Angola, where he accompanied his father for a hydraulic engineering project. In 1958, he was admitted to the United States Foreign Service and served for twenty-eight years in a variety of posts: Conakry, Guinea; Recife, Brazil; Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire; Lourenço Marques, Mozambique; Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar); and assignments in Washington, D.C. and New York City.

During one of his stays in the United States, MacDougall again met his old friend Eleanore in New York City, where she was working for the Welfare Department. They married in Cooperstown on December 26, 1970, and traveled together overseas afterwards. Upon retirement in 1986, the MacDougalls moved to Cooperstown, where he invested himself in community action and scholarship. He founded the James Fenimore Cooper Society in 1989, was involved in village planning, and began teaching classes at the Center for Continuing Adult Learning at the State University of New York in Oneonta. Today he enjoys his research and continues to be an important source for James Fenimore Cooper knowledge.

MacDougall has always had an interest in Africa and the Third World. His comments on the Foreign Service address daily life, work environment, Cold War tension, transportation, marriage, interaction with the locals, and several exciting international affairs. MacDougall played a minor part in the Cuban Missile Crisis and helped deal with a bombing of a South Korean delegation in Burma, among other things.

See Dickerson’s full interview at[Link no longer extant. – Ed.] for a wonderful recounting of Hugh’s life in his own words, full of his characteristic candor and humor.

Reader Edward Harthorn particularly enjoyed this anecdote:

I remember rather amusingly when I was in Recife, Brazil, in the northeastern part of Brazil, this was in 1964, and there was a coup d’état in Brazil in which the army took over from a left-wing government in Rio de Janeiro. The army up here in northeastern Brazil, where we were, the local state had a communist governor, so we awoke one morning to look down from the Consulate, which was the upper story of a small multi- story building. We looked down on a park on the other side of which was the governor’s palace. I looked down there at all these soldiers milling around, setting up guns, and cannons and things. One of them had his cannon, in effect, pointed where, if it fired, it was going to go right through where my car was parked. So I went down and asked them politely if they’d mind if I moved my car, and [he said] “Well, please go right ahead.”

Following the news of Hugh’s death, a number of Cooper Society members sent tributes to commemorate his rich legacy, which we present below. You can learn more about Hugh from this 2012 interview. [Link no longer extant. – Ed.] You may also enjoy watching this tour of Cooperstown, recorded by C-SPAN, that Hugh gave in 2001.

Farewell, Hugh.    

Steven Harthorn, Corresponding Secretary

Tributes to Hugh C. McDougall

Frank Bergmann (Emeritus, Utica College)

Of the half dozen times or so that I met Hugh, one in particular keeps coming back before my eyes. I had always included one of the Leatherstocking novels in my courses in early American literature and the American Renaissance. Many years ago now in the fall, soon after I had first encountered Hugh, I inquired if he would be willing to give a small group of advanced undergraduate English majors a tour of Cooperstown, with emphasis on the writer. He readily agreed, and so I booked a college van and drove that group the seventy-five minutes or so from the Utica College campus to a parking spot near the Cooper statue in the middle of town. From Cooper’s grave to the mouth of the Susquehanna to the boat landing on Otsego Lake, Hugh spellbound my students and me with his knowledge and his charm. On the way home, we stopped at the Fenimore House, and then all the way back to Utica my students talked about Hugh’s tour and thanked me for having arranged it. I laughed and said that it was Hugh who deserved all the credit. He made some believers that day. May he rest in peace with the likes of Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo.

Robert Daly (Emeritus, SUNY, University at Buffalo)

Even in retrospect, the quickness and range of Hugh C. McDougall’s generosity remain surprising. As inspiration, colleague, aide, and friend, Hugh has been the making of the society and a great benefit to all its members. My students, colleagues, and I have learned more from him than I can recount here, from his conference papers and questions, through the indefatigable walking tours of Cooperstown, to his long and cheerful commitment to “Ask Fenimore.”

He was friend and colleague to anyone with an interest in Cooper, always quick to help, quick to share. When a younger member of the society asked me if there were any good photographs of Cooper, I turned to ask Hugh and found that he was wearing one in a cameo. That’s fast.

Early and late, Hugh has lent generous help to the careers and lives of students, colleagues, friends, and strangers, so I join with a great range of others to say, many thanks, Hugh. Much obliged.

Matthew DeLaMater (SUNY New Paltz)

The loss of Hugh is irreplaceable and staggering. He takes with him all the assets of his mind and his goodness that we can no longer summon in his guiding presence. Yet his life should inspire us to emulation, and in that way sustain his vitality moving forward in the way we might be warmed by a sacred flame. Like Cooper himself and the forming of the famous “Bread and Cheese” Society, Hugh was the central force of this fellowship, indispensable in putting together a remarkable thing. We must continue together as the best way to honor his memory.

Steven P. Harthorn (University of Northwestern-St. Paul)

The gravity of having to say goodbye to Hugh weighed heavily on me as I dropped him off in his room at Thanksgiving Home in Cooperstown at the end of the Cooper Conference in 2019. Hugh had given up driving, so I happily chauffeured him to and from the conference, which he himself suspected would be his last.

Six years before, my son Edward and I had stayed with Hugh and Eleanore during the conference, tucked away in a cozy attic room under the mansard roof of their early-1800s house at 8 Lake Street (actually two houses joined together). Going up the stairs, we passed shelf after shelf of books, though these hardly compared to Hugh’s office on the second floor, which was packed floor to ceiling with a nearly Dickensian assortment of bookshelves, file cabinets, and other surfaces stacked with an exhaustive variety of materials related to Cooper. Among these, Hugh owned a number of first editions and other valuable titles but seemed to view them more as working tools than collector’s items; his office was a workspace rather than a showcase. And work he did, although it often seemed that Hugh considered it equal parts play.

Back at Thanksgiving Home, the contrast was impossible to ignore. Hugh had kept his prized thirty-two-volume Darley edition, Beard’s Letters and Journals, and five or six shelves’ worth of other books — the rest of his Cooper collection going to its new home at the New York State Historical Association, where it will benefit Cooper scholars for generations to come. Hugh’s computer was in his room, too, but he admitted that his prodigious efforts for the Cooper Society and others were winding down (though, much to my delight, he would still treat his brother and a number of us on his email list to some of his writings from his student days and early diplomatic career, until the messages became fewer and fewer toward the end of 2020). Hugh was philosophical about his circumstances (perhaps he gleaned some inspiration from the Leather-Stocking); he had lived a good life and still had things he wanted to do, and he bid farewell with good cheer.

Driving back to Oneonta, I thought of all the excursions to Cooperstown that Hugh had made so special over the two decades I had been coming to the conference. One lighter moment that stands out is a time when Hugh and a few of us “regulars” slipped up to Cooperstown for the afternoon — not for the scheduled conference field trip, but so Hugh could show us the quarry from The Pioneers and a few other off-the-beaten-path sites around town. After touring, we stopped for refreshments and conversation, and the day passed more quickly than expected. The keynote address was to be given that night, and Hugh wanted to get back for it, though there was not much time to spare. So, he and Eleanore led the way in their car, and we followed behind. Hugh minded the speed limit carefully, which meant that by the time we got back to Oneonta, we were cutting the timing very close indeed. As we rolled up to one intersection, the light turned red — more delay. But we watched in amazement as an antsy Hugh made a quick stop, glanced both ways, then zipped on through. Cooperian civil disobedience? We caught up with Hugh a few minutes later and, much to his relief, came in not long after things had gotten underway.

These days, I have taken on a few more of Hugh’s duties, including “Ask Fenimore,” and while I love the challenge and the people I meet, I constantly wish I had Hugh to talk shop about whatever Cooper obscurity might come our way. He would know the answer, or find it if he did not, and share half a dozen other facts besides. What a generous, talented, and distinctive individual Hugh was — a blessing to us all.

Rochelle L. Johnson (College of Idaho)

I first met Hugh C. McDougall nearly twenty-five years ago, when I was a graduate student with a budding interest in the work of Susan Fenimore Cooper. I found my way to him through the recommendation of other scholars, and when I first made the journey to Cooperstown, I did so as much to meet Hugh as I did to see the landscape that had inspired the Coopers and U.S. environmentalism. Little did I know, the man I met here in Cooperstown would set in motion the trajectory of my career, which, surprisingly to me, turned out to return again and again to Susan Fenimore Cooper. And of course I also met Eleanore, with her kind heart, bright twinkling smile, and contagious laugh.

Together, Hugh and Eleanore listened to my interests, shared resources, and connected me with the rich community of historically- minded individuals who help preserve Cooperstown history and its landscapes. They encouraged my young, timid self to reach out to the Cooper family directly—a move that led to both deep friendships and a rich archive. During later visits, Hugh and Eleanore opened their home to me, hosting me as a guest. Hugh showed me all around the village, and, in a move for which I remain extremely grateful, he pointed me to Jessie Ravage—a young woman who had recently completed her degree at NYSHA and shared an interest in Susan Fenimore Cooper. Jessie has since become my best guide to the region, integral to my experiences of the area, and I am forever indebted to Hugh for pointing me her way.

Over the years, I have returned to Cooperstown countless times, and a visit there has not been complete without a conversation with Hugh. But beyond the warm welcomes he provided to me in Cooperstown, Hugh was always generous beyond measure in sharing with me his scholarship on Susan Fenimore Cooper. Over the years, he alerted me to articles, sent me copies of letters, and forwarded me relevant email inquiries from the hundreds of people who wrote to him as the “Ask Fenimore” source. He humbled me by asking for my perspective on thorny historical questions and by sharing items from his collections. He seemed to understand that Susan Fenimore Cooper’s life, writings, and landscapes would become my passion, and at every turn, he sought to enrich my endeavors.

I am well aware that my work on Susan Fenimore Cooper would not have been nearly as productive if it were not for the extremely gracious benevolence of Hugh. His knowledge seemed endless, as did his generosity and his energy.

I was fortunate to live in Cooperstown during the last seven months of Hugh’s life. During that (pandemic) time, we shared several “window visits” at his apartment at the Thanksgiving Home. Even then, he spoke excitedly about his latest Cooper-related discovery, his eyes sparkling as they did. We also spoke regularly by phone, including just a few days before his death. I am grateful that I had that chance to say goodbye to someone who has been so influential on Cooper studies and on my own work. I will treasure the books and other memorabilia Hugh shared with me over the years.

We will miss you, Hugh. Visits to Cooperstown will not be the same.

David Lampe (Emeritus, SUNY Buffalo State)

An Amazing Amateur

i.m. Hugh C. McDougall

Hugh came to Cooper studies after retirement, a diplomat returning home to Cooperstown, to a tradition he owned and was anxious to share with others on his terms.

He was an amazing “amateur”, motivated by love not by academic or intellectual motives. I never knew him well and at times disagreed with him but came to respect him and will miss him.

Barbara Alice Mann (University of Toledo)

I began Cooper studies in 1993, during my Master’s graduate work. Almost immediately, I found myself in contact with Hugh C. McDougall, who turned out not only to be a fount of knowledge, but also a very generous scholar. Because this was back in the bad old days of paper trails through dusty archives requiring lengthy travel, research used to be much more expensive and daunting than it is with today’s digital archives, accessible worldwide. Unfortunately, I was very poor at the time, making travel and purchase of research burdensome. Enter Hugh C. McDougall. He quietly realized my situation and began simply sending me packets with copies of hard-to-access material. Never once did he ask for a reimbursement! His only instruction was to “make it count”. I did my best.

In May 1998, as a freshly minted Ph. D, I attended my first ALA in San Diego. My daughter had recently finished college, having worked hard for scholarships, and I wanted to give her acknowledgement, so I scraped up enough money to bring her with me to San Diego. (An Asian Studies major fluent in Mandarin Chinese, the highlight for her was a Chinese wedding that occurred in the courtyard of our hotel, right below our balcony.)

Money scarce, we had to conserve our little stash of cash, so we ate light. The first morning, spying us at our meager breakfast, Hugh came over and plunked himself down with a “May I join you?” He ordered a sumptuous breakfast for all, for which he paid. Thereafter, he made sure that we were both all right, for the rest of the conference.

Throughout my connection with Hugh, I saw that these unspoken kindnesses, resulting from a close awareness of others, formed the character of the man. I will always be grateful for his unostentatious thoughtfulness and his genuinely benevolent nature.

Michael Pikus (Emeritus, Niagara County Community College)

As its founder, Hugh C. McDougall was the heart, soul, and face of the James Fenimore Cooper Society. He was committed to his core to all things Cooper. His guidance and mentoring of both professional and amateur scholars helped to further solidify James Fenimore Cooper’s significant place in the study of American literature.

Anna Scannavini (Università Degli Studi Dell’Aquila)

I met Hugh during my first visit to Worcester and the AAS, when he invited me to go and stay with him and his wife Eleanore in Cooperstown. We had corresponded throughout the previous year regarding The Bravo. I don’t remember how I found him out, but should imagine it was through the wonderful JFC website of which he was the soul and webmaster at that time. He also was a wonderful and cosmopolitan researcher, and when he discovered me, he shared the correspondence he had exchanged with Venetian hotel managers, in search of the place where the Coopers stayed in Venice. He asked me to try the same path in order to find firmer evidence (which I did not find, by the way).

Later on, he told me of the Marliani rendition of The Bravo, of whose existence I was completely unaware. Among his many interests, he knew and loved music, opera included. At that time, I think, he had a plan to bring onstage Marliani’s Bravo at Glimmerglass Opera of Cooperstown, a theater of which he was an active (and delighted) supporter. As there was no copy of the libretto and score that he knew of in the US, Hugh asked me to find them in Rome, which I did, digging them out at Rome St. Cecilia Academy of Music. That was big fun, and it would be impossible to overstate how much I enjoyed my exchanges with Hugh, his enormous energy and wide interests.

When I finally got to visit with him, that was one of those very rare pieces of luck you get when you deviate from the main roads of the academy and get in contact with a country grassroots. Hugh was a born raconteur, full of stories about Cooperstown, Glimmerglass, and of course Cooper. He drove me to see all the places of Pioneers. He introduced me to all the most notable places of contemporary Cooperstown, including the seat of its local journal and the Hall of Fame (whose existence had befuddled me so, when I first went look for Cooper on the internet).

So gracious, learned, and generous. He and Eleanore had vast memories of their life around the world and we spent a whole evening talking about Myanmar/Burma, a place they loved very much. He introduced me to the new score Brent Michael Davids had recently written for the 1920 movie The Last of the Mohicans, and we watched the film together, a new version I still make reference to in my teaching.

In short, he and Eleanore fed me and were my hosts both culturally and factually, and Hugh continued to keep me abreast of their life in Cooperstown up to after Eleanore’s demise and his retirement home. And it is sorrowful now to think that, as it so often happens, I was never able to find time and get back to visit with them again. Because my debt to him is immense, such as the debt of the many who can still take advantage of the JFC Society website, “one of the most comprehensive author resources on the Web,” as Steve Harthorn reminded us in the tribute presented to Hugh at Oneonta in 2017.

Ciao, Hugh, sleep well.

Lance Schachterle (Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Editor-in-Chief, The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper)

I first met Hugh at a Cooper conference back in the summer days when attendees stayed in the very warm residence halls of SUNY at Oneonta, with sessions in their refreshingly cool library. As I recall, Hugh had just retired from the foreign service to Cooperstown, where he lived with his wife Eleanore in a lovely cottage at the south end of Lake Otsego. Their cottage occupied a strategic position between the lakeside motel and the spot, famous in The Deerslayer, where the lake debouches to form the Susquehanna River.

Hugh was gregarious and eager to meet everyone. He wanted to get to know Cooperstown well and his interest in and research into everything in that lovely village led to his appointment as the state-sponsored village historian. He also wanted to learn about James Fenimore Cooper, its most famous resident. So much so, that he remarked he wanted to devote his retirement energies either to becoming the secretary for American diplomats retired from his last posting in Burma, or to start something new for Cooper.

James Franklin Beard, the editor in the 1960s of The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, was at best half-hearted in his support for Hugh’s idea of starting a Cooper society, pleading that such an initiative should wait for the biography he was working on. Fortunately, Hugh decided to ignore this advice and of course we had to wait until the next century for Wayne Franklin’s definitive biography. So, Hugh formally started the James Fenimore Cooper Society on 15 September 1989 — the bicentennial to the day of Cooper’s birth.

Hugh devoted huge energy to the Society, starting with a comprehensive website open and valuable to Cooper scholars and first readers alike. Hugh always provided excellent commentaries on the novels featured at the Oneonta/Cooperstown sessions and was a most knowledgeable guide for seminar participants in the annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown. Our Newsletter and later Journal benefited from a steady stream of his articles. Hugh’s “Ask Fenimore” column gamely took on all questions from the most obscure to most general. Hugh merits the title of Independent Scholar, and no one has done as much to maintaining Cooper’s reputation as Hugh C. MacDougall.

Signe O. Wegener (Independent Scholar)

Thank you, Hugh!

Cooper scholars and non-scholars alike owe a tremendous debt to Hugh C. McDougall, and will continue to do so. Academics or not, we all benefit from his tireless commitment to the James Fenimore Cooper Society and the biannual seminars at SUNY Oneonta, and his delight in providing details of how Cooper was perceived around the world. Also, he wanted us to understand what had shaped Cooper: his childhood around Lake Otsego, his naval experience, his travels, his religious beliefs. Until it became too hard for him physically to do so, Hugh’s guided walking tour of Cooperstown was a must during the Cooper seminars. It was as inevitable as Christmas, as the late Jim Devlin once said, and a timely reminder that there is more to the village of Cooperstown than baseball and golf. My favorite memory from one of his tours showed that the two Cooperstowns might intersect in strange ways. Sauntering towards “Lake Glimmerglass,” I noticed that Hugh’s coterie had expanded. A small group of young girls and women, obviously wishing to see a different Cooperstown than the one represented by the Baseball Hall of Fame, had joined us and stayed with us for a while! For a brief moment they partook of a different place than the one they had expected, learning who had lived in the various buildings, and also gaining an appreciation for the Cooper family and James Fenimore Cooper himself.

He expanded our horizons in unusual ways. In my case, the showing of the East German movie Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange, a choice of topic which initially puzzled me, eventually made me consider the continued impact and use of Cooper’s text: political propaganda. This led to an investigation of the East German “Indian movement.” As Friedrich on Borries and Jens-Uwe Fischer’s book Sozialistische Cowboys: Der Wilde Westen Ostdeutschlands (Suhrkamp 2008) spelled out: “Echte Indianer sind Antiimperialisten” (“Real Indians are Anti-imperialists”) (41).

So once more: Thank you, Hugh!

Rebecca Sue Cooper Wester (Independent Scholar)

I’m so sorry to learn of Mr. MacDougall’s passing. He was an exceptional man, a brilliant mind and a person who accomplished so much. In 2004, my husband and I made a road trip from our home in Oklahoma up into New York and other places in the Eastern United States. I had informed him that we would like to visit Cooperstown. He was so gracious! He and his wife invited us into their home, and then he gave us a lovely walking tour of the “old town,” showing us the church the Cooper family built and attended, the home that JFC had built for his daughter, and other major points of interest. I’m not that special, but he made me and my husband both feel like VIPs.