Brother Blue’s story lives on for many

Mourners honor famed storyteller

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / November 9, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - On a beautiful, color-dappled afternoon, an upbeat stream of artists, dancers, puppeteers, and storytellers walked into a North Cambridge funeral home to pay their respects to the man who lay inside. The deceased wore a blue beret, sported a multicolored jacket, and rested in a coffin draped with a dazzling covering featuring a sparkling blue butterfly.

The man was Hugh Morgan Hill, or Brother Blue, a legendary Cambridge storyteller whose life had touched many with its empathy, its optimism, its support, and its message of unflagging hope. The time had come to say goodbye.

Hill, who died Tuesday at 88, was a raconteur for raconteurs. But his stories, said Hill’s friends and admirers, transcended mere entertainment. They bore a message that sought to make a connection between teller and listener based on goodness, humanity, and common bonds of decency.

“He had such a loving heart that people got what they needed,’’ said Kevin Brooks, 51, a storyteller and Motorola designer who said he was struggling with doctoral exams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he met Hill.

“He inspired me and got me through those exams,’’ Brooks said with a smile.

That smile was duplicated on the faces of hundreds of people, many of them clad in blue, who visited Keefe Funeral Home to visit Hill one last time and offer condolences to his wife, Ruth Edmonds Hill. The memorial, more celebration than mourning, elicited story after story of Brother Blue, whose trademark blue clothing, painted butterflies on his palms, and concern for old friends and complete strangers made his compassionate brand of sidewalk showmanship uniquely compelling.

Tatiana Brainerd, 36, who wore a long, blue scarf, added her favorite quotation from Brother Blue to a piece of drawing paper set up for such reminiscences. “I bet you have a great story,’’ she wrote.

The quote represented the first words that Hill had spoken to Brainerd, shortly after she boarded a bus about seven years ago in a foul, miserable mood.

The effect was magical, she recalled. “It was like someone who looks inside of you and can see all the life and the joy,’’ Brainerd said. All of a sudden, she added: “I couldn’t remember why I was in a bad mood. Since then, I’ve never, ever gone back.’’

Over the decades, Hill developed into such a fixture in Harvard Square, Central Square, and beyond that he was named the official storyteller of Cambridge and Boston by their respective city councils.

Born in Cleveland, Hill was raised in poverty and served in the Army in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II.

Following military service, Hill graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in social relations. He later added a master’s degree in playwriting from Yale University and a doctorate in storytelling from Union Graduate School.

That interest in the ancient craft, which Hill shaped into both an ethereal and earthy art, became a life passion in the 1960s, when he began traveling to prisons. To establish a rapport with inmates, Hill adopted his nickname of Brother Blue, which had its origins with a mentally disabled sibling who could say “blue’’ but not “Hugh.’’

That brother, Tommy, who died at a young age, inspired Hill to embrace the beautiful and delicate symbolism of the butterfly.

Occasionally, Hill would walk the streets barefoot, which he said enabled him to develop an intimate connection with nature.

But within his simple tastes, Hill nurtured a wide, deep love of literature that informed the core of his tales and his message.

“I bring Homer to the streets. I bring Sophocles,’’ he once said. “To tell stories, you should know Chaucer. You should know Shakespeare. You should know Keats. You have to be continually reading. You think, you read, you create.’’

Robert Smyth, whose Yellow Moon Press published a tribute to Hill in 2003, said Hill’s support for aspiring storytellers was unflagging.

“The man always, always, always found something to praise in what people did,’’ Smyth said. “It could be someone who was just starting storytelling, and it was ragged and raw, but he would listen with all his being and find the gem that was in there and praise it.’’

Yesterday, in their calm, serene, and warm way, Brother Blue’s friends came to praise him.