Entering History San Jose’s Research Library, you’ll find yourself in the Hugh Stuart Center Memorial Trust reading room. Prominent attorney Hugh Stuart Center (1905-1977) had deep roots in Santa Clara Valley, and now has an enduring link to History San Jose. His papers, made available to researchers at HSJ, offer a window into pioneer Santa Clara Valley families and a glimpse of his colorful legal and political careers.
Raised in his parents’ home on the Alameda and educated at San Jose High School, Hugh was the son of local railroad entrepreneur Hugh Center and popular San Jose teacher Mary Stuart Center. After earning a Stanford law degree in 1930, Hugh joined the prestigious, politically influential San Jose law firm of Rankin, Oneal, Luckhardt, and Hall. There, Hugh earned a reputation as a creative advocate and effective negotiator, spending time tracking down murderers in the Nevada desert and conferring with headline-making clients in San Quentin.
In 1933, Louis Oneal (1874-1943) was convinced of the innocence of accused wife-murderer David Lamson, sales manager of the Stanford Press. However, his outspoken political rival E. M. Rea was Lamson’s chief defense counsel, so Oneal sent in two associates–Maurice Rankin and Hugh–to consult. Although convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to hang, Lamson was acquitted on appeal in 1936.
Also in 1933, Center was among the very few attempting to prevent the lynching in San Jose of two men accused of kidnapping and murdering 22-year-old Brooke Hart. While at the city jail assisting his friend San Jose Sheriff William J. Emit, Hugh struggled with invading vigilantes until hit in the head with a brick. As Thomas Thurmond and Jack Holmes were dragged to the lynching tree, Hugh unsuccessfully grabbed for the hanging rope and again was brought down.
Louis Oneal had a soft spot for the dashing Hugh, who shared his love of the outdoors. The Nevada-born Oneal, still a cowboy at heart, raised palominos and hosted rodeos and fandangos at his Los Altos ranch. Dressed as a sheikh and riding one of Oneal’s famous palominos through San Jose for the Shriner’s parade, the younger man cut quite a figure. But Oneal also provided Hugh with invaluable lessons on politics. Known throughout California as “Mr. Republican,” the former state senator now wielded far more influence as the man behind the elections. Under his tutelage, Center soon became active in politics, serving on the Santa Clara County Republican Central committee throughout the 1930s, and as an early organizer, general counsel, and state president of the Young Republicans of California. In 1940, he organized local support for Wendell Willkie’s campaign, but by 1941 he was having serious doubts about political life, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he took his career in a different direction.
Center’s political ties, legal credentials, and experience as an organizer earned him a naval commission as District Labor Relations Officer for the Twelfth Naval District, and later as adviser to the Navy’s Western Sea Command. Throughout the war, as the federal government struggled to control inflation and stabilize strategic industries, the Navy negotiated increasingly complex standards and agreements with unions and private contractors. Although he was clearly more sympathetic with management, Hugh again earned commendations from all sides for his abilities. With much of his attention drawn to the wage and work disputes that often broke out between 1942 and 1946, he was particularly adept at smoothing relations between the Navy, San Francisco Bay private contractors, and the unions that made up the Bay Cities Trade Council.
Frustrated with government red tape and with the ongoing nature of labor disputes, in fall 1946, Hugh eagerly returned to San Jose and a full-time law career. “A formidable trial lawyer, he was known for his rare combination of thoroughness, flair and ingenuity,” writes Center’s biographer, James Houston.
History San Jose has many ties to Hugh’s family. His first wife, Jane Archer Center, was the granddaughter of San Jose pioneer Lawrence Archer, a respected county judge and twice San Jose’s mayor. Archer’s property — between Keys, Phelan, McLaughlin and Senter — was given to San Jose in the 1950s by Jane’s aunt, Louise Archer Kelley, and is now Kelley Park, home of History San Jose. After Jane’s death Center married San Jose native Barbara Ferrin. Barbara took an active interest in arts and cultural organizations of the Santa Clara Valley, and served as a member of the advisory board of the San Jose Historical Museum (today’s History San Jose). For more than 35 years, their legacy, the Hugh Stuart Center Charitable Trust, has been an important supporter of arts, culture, and education throughout Santa Clara County, and a generous benefactor of History San Jose.