Mary Yergan Hughes, 87, of Mount Airy, a children's librarian, volunteer, and matriarch, died Dec. 20 of congestive heart failure at Holy Redeemer Hospital, Meadowbrook.

Mary Yergan Hughes
Courtesy of the family
Mary Yergan Hughes

Known to friends as "Bunny," Mrs. Hughes was born at home in the town of Alice, South Africa. She was the daughter of missionaries Susie Wiseman Yergan and Dr. Max Yergan, the latter an African American activist and educator who had been an early leader in campaigning for black civil rights in Africa, according to his 1975 New York Times obituary.

In her early years, Mrs. Hughes attended grade school in Raleigh, N.C. She later enrolled at the Gill, Mass., preparatory school now called Northfield Mount Hermon. One of only a few African American students, she showed leadership skills, serving as president of the student council. She graduated from Northfield in 1948.

"Her parents were part of a black elite that knew about — and believed in — education, so my mom was an early pioneer, one of the first African Americans to attend this kind of school," said her daughter Brenda Hughes Miller.

Mrs. Hughes also broke ground when she was among the first group of African American women to attend Wellesley College. When she contracted tuberculosis after her junior year, she had to leave campus for an Upstate New York sanatorium, where it took her three years to recover. She finished her undergraduate degree at Columbia University's school of general studies in 1952.

Three years later, she married physician Deurward L. Hughes from Raleigh. The two met through a friend. "Dad laid eyes on her and was smitten, and changed all his plans," Miller said.

After her daughters grew up, Mrs. Hughes decided to pursue advanced education. She completed a master's degree in library science from Drexel University in 1978.

Starting in the late 1970s, she became a children's librarian in Philadelphia's Northwest Regional Library.

A highlight of her career were the after-school story hours that neighborhood children were invited to attend and at which she presided, reading books and showing the illustrations. Years later, some of her former listeners thanked her for inspiring them with a love of books and reading, her family said. She retired in 2003.

Throughout her adult life, Mrs. Hughes was a volunteer. She was a Platinum Alumna member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Links Inc., presiding as president during one of its National Assemblies in the early 2000s. The Links is a service organization of distinguished women whose goal is to enrich and sustain the culture and economic survival of African Americans and others of African ancestry, according to its online mission statement.

She also served as president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Circle-Lets Inc., a social organization for black women. She presided at the group's National Conclave in 2004.

She and Dr. Hughes divorced in the late 1980s, but prior to that she served a term as president of the Boulé wives, the women's arm of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (Alpha Boulé), of which he was a member.

"Within each organization, she worked diligently, inspiring and recruiting new members," her family said.

A sports enthusiast and a self-described joiner, Mrs. Hughes was a fierce but fun-loving tennis player who participated in many tournaments as a member of the Germantown Cricket Club, her family said. She also was a highly sought-after bridge player and partner.

Mrs. Hughes was a half-century member and elder at Summit Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy.

She was perhaps most proud of being the matriarch of a large family.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by another daughter, Diane Hughes-Webster; 13 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews. A daughter, WDAS radio reporter Susan Hughes, also known as Fatimah Ali, died in 2012.

Services were Dec. 30. Interment was private.

Memorial donations may be made to Summit Presbyterian Church, 6757 Greene St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19119.