Hugh Reid, who helped bury the dead of Greenpoint for generations, himself finally succumbed to death himself last Thursday, just short of his ninetieth year. I was lucky enough to spend a long afternoon with Hugh about two years ago, while researching my recently published book, King of Greenpoint, about Peter J McGuinness, the boss of Greenpoint. Many locals insisted that I had to talk to Hugh because no one knew more Greenpoint history, so we sat down.
He told me his grandparents immigrated in 1856 from Cushendall Northern Ireland and for generations his family had worked the Greenpoint waterfront. He was one of twelve children, so when he was not in school he hustled to help the family get extra money. Hugh knew Peter McGuinness well because they both lived on Leonard Street, though he was not necessarily a fan of McGuinness by any means. I learned not only about McGuinness, but also a wealth of local information. Hugh had lived here all his life and his memory was sharp, even if his hearing had grown dim. Many of the characters I wrote about I only knew from books but Hugh knew them as people and gave me insights into their personalities no book or document ever could.
Hugh Reid was a Greenpoint institution and it is fair to say that he loved it every bit as much as its people loved him. He started out doing deliveries for a local German-American delicatessen, but he noticed that local funeral directors were rich men with big cars and elegant clothes. In 1949 he enrolled in the New York School of Embalming and Restorative Art, a program that taught undertaking, and then bought McElroy’s Funeral Home, a local Irish-American business, changing the name to Hugh A. Reid’s funeral home. Many Greenpointers cannot remember a time when his business was not a Greenpoint Avenue landmark. He endeared himself to generations of locals because of his thoughtfulness during their times of grief and mourning. Many a Greenpointer was buried whose family did not have the full price of a funeral, but Hugh knew that they would eventually pay and most, in time, did. Many people never forgot his generosity and kindness in those difficult times. However, as Greenpoint natives left and other unfamiliar people arrived his business tapered off.
I would be dishonest if I told you that Hugh and I hit it off. We did not see eye to eye on some things, but one thing is absolutely certain: Hugh did not mince words and he told you exactly what he thought. Hugh had seen Greenpoint change and it saddened him. He told me that when he was younger he knew everyone on the street and he regretted that Greenpoint had lost the intimacy and friendliness that he had known as a young man. He said that it made him sad that so many friends had either moved away or had died. He recounted to me how once he seemed to know everyone in the neighborhood. but in the last few years there were fewer and fewer familiar faces and for the first time he felt like a stranger in his very own hometown.
Hugh was proud Irish-American and a devoted husband and father. His wife died a few years ago of cancer and he is survived by a daughter Mary and two grandchildren. One of the greatest pleasures in his life was his membership in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which rewarded him for a lifetime of service with an assistant Grand Marshall position in the 1981 St. Patrick’s Day parade. He was related to an amazing number of local Irish-American families. He may be gone, but Hugh was such a character that he won’t be forgotten by so many of the people in the community he loved so much.