On many winter days, when fresh white snow was falling on some local stream, John Murtha and John Hugya would go out fishing.
Together, in the quiet Pennsylvania woods, they were not a congressman and his staffer. They were not two battled-tested Marines.
They were not two men tasked with the responsibility of helping Johnstown and surrounding
towns survive tough economic times after the collapse of the steel industry.
They were not community leaders who needed to make sure children, veterans and senior citizens were protected.
Instead, during those peaceful moments, Murtha and Hugya were simply two friends enjoying each other’s company.
“We just had a great time just being out there,” Hugya said when telling some personal stories about his friend on Friday.
Now, Hugya is in Philadelphia to attend Saturday’s commissioning of the USS John P. Murtha, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock named after the 12th Congressional District’s late representative. On Friday, he, along with Veteran Community Initiatives Director Tom Caulfield, presented a statue of Murtha to the ship’s commander, Capt. Kevin Parker.
“To me, it’s very important because of all the time that I spent with him, not just in an office, but all the other things we did, along the way, for
51 years, as a Marine, as a friend, and then also working as his district director and his chief of staff,” Hugya said.
The statue, created by Wayne Hyde from Bedford County, will be placed aboard the ship, as will a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet, signed by the team’s owner, Dan Rooney.
“The Rooney family has been great friends of Congressman and Mrs. (Joyce) Murtha, and so they wanted to make sure that there was something from the Steelers organization on board the USS John P. Murtha,” said Concurrent Technologies Corp. President Ed Sheehan, Jr., who acquired the helmet.
“This helmet will reside on the ship forever.”
Hugya and Sheehan are two of many friends, family members and political colleagues from across the local area who plan to attend the commissioning. Collectively, they described Murtha as a hard-working, caring, loyal friend and legislative giant, who is fondly remembered throughout the district he once served.
“It’s really an honor to have the ship named after him,” Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk said.
Caulfield described Murtha as a congressman who always made sure he kept up to date about the needs and concerns of the people he represented.
“He always wanted to know what the average veteran was doing because he was there in Washington and you get a little distorted view from Washington,” Caulfield said. “He wanted to know what the guys were thinking about. And, sometimes, those things matched, and sometimes they didn’t. But he never wanted us to soften it.”
Bob Eyer, a local advocate for veterans called Murtha a “very matter-of-fact person.”
Eyer continued: “I think that he probably was as his image: tough guy, got the job done. He didn’t make any bones about it. He was there to work for the people, work for the military in a straightforward approach.”
Even though Eyer and thousands of other well-wishers have gone to Philadelphia for the weekend’s festivities, one important person is missing.
Murtha’s widow, Joyce Murtha, is continuing her recovery from a medical issue and is not yet able to travel long distances. But Hugya had lunch with her earlier this week and said she “looks great” and that “We had a good time together.”