In Memoriam: Former Union President Rev. Dr. Joseph C. Hough, Jr.

In Memoriam: Former Union President Rev. Dr. Joseph C. Hough, Jr.

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President from 1999 to 2008

The Reverend Dr. Joseph C. Hough Jr., or Joe as he was known to everyone, died on May 15, 2023, a few months shy of his 90th birthday, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Chris Herlinger ’93 interviewed Joe for a celebratory issue of the Union News in 2008 at the time of Joe’s retirement.

“By turns happy, relieved, and proud – not to mention outspoken when the subject required it,” Herlinger wrote, “Joseph Hough knows that his leadership enabled Union to face a critical crisis and surmount it.

“Yet Hough repeatedly said, both in interviews and during several April Seminary tributes marking his retirement, that Union’s financial and institutional turnaround was not the accomplishment of one person but of many.

“’It’s the truth. It was a team effort,’” he said of his early working relationship with two dynamic women: Executive Vice President Mary McNamara, who served as acting president for one academic year prior to Hough’s 1999 appointment, and former Board Chairwoman Anne Hale Johnson.”  They were, he said, two of the smartest women he’d ever met.

The great challenge of Joe’s presidency was attacking head-on the Seminary’s financial exigency. “While the nadir of Union’s financial problems didn’t fully emerge until the post-9/11 tech stock crash in late 2001,” Herlinger wrote, “it was clear, even in the earlier years, that new ways of thinking and doing things at Union needed to be implemented  ̶ whether that meant the Seminary’s faculty and board working together to implement a strategic plan, or the decision announced in 2004 that Union’s Burke Library would become part of the Columbia University library system-an agreement under which Burke’s collection, services, and technology programs became fully integrated with Columbia’s.

Union’s President Serene Jones shares, “During his time at Union, President Hough served the seminary well, leading the school through a difficult period of financial exigency that set the stage for all we have accomplished in the last fifteen years. I have tremendous gratitude for Joe’s steadfast leadership during a very difficult time. His incredible legacy lives on through the many many lives he touched and through all the graduates who continue to pass through Union’s hallways today and well into the future. May he rest in peace. His surviving spouse, Heidi, and their children continue to be in our hearts and prayers.”

Joe’s family had this to say:

“Joe Hough was born and raised in North Carolina, but his career took him all over the world.  Before coming to Union, he had a distinguished career as an academic leader, professor, and minister.  Joe’s tenure at Union was preceded by nine years at Vanderbilt University, where he served as the Dean of the Divinity School, and almost 30 years in Claremont, where he served on the faculty of Claremont Graduate University and as the Dean of the School of Theology at Claremont (California).  

“In the later part of his career, Joe dedicated himself to addressing the crisis of poverty in America, appearing on television and using his platform to increase awareness and organizing events to create awareness and mobilize people to action. Joe firmly believed that it was our moral obligation to eradicate poverty which he believed was the root cause of many of society’s ills.

“Joe Hough earned numerous honors over the years. Claremont Graduate University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2010; Yale University recognized him as an alumnus of distinction in 2007. Wake Forest University named him an honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1991. The School of Theology at Claremont presented him with its Centennial Medal for Distinguished Service in 1986. He also received the Joshua Award from the Jewish Federation Council in 1986 for outstanding contributions to human relations. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Congregational, Hough wrote three books on theological education, the church and ministry, and a book about social ethics. 

“But Joe was more than his many career accomplishments; he was a devoted husband, father, grandfather, brother, and friend. He possessed many gifts, but all who knew him would agree that Joe had the gift of gab like no one else and the best laugh. He was an accomplished storyteller, and you knew you were in for a good one when his Southern drawl grew thicker. The story he loved to tell the most was when he met his bride of 63 years, Heidi Nussbaumer.

“Joe met Heidi when he was an associate minister in a Baptist church in Tennessee while visiting local farms. Joe was immediately smitten by Heidi and asked her father if he could take her on a date. Heidi’s father was an old-fashioned Swiss dairy farmer who was not enamored of the dating customs of young Americans. Despite this, he agreed to let Joe have a date with Heidi (probably in deference to his ministerial status). Joe did not waste time or the opportunity and proposed to Heidi on the second date. Heidi and Joe spent their lives together, traveling the world and having many adventures.

“Joe’s greatest happiness came when his four grandchildren arrived in rapid succession from 1994 to 1998. Joe took great delight in showing them the world (taking them to their first Broadway shows, scouring NYC for the perfect pizza, swimming in the pool or ocean with them, baptizing them, unforgettable trips to London, the beach, epic and ruthless games of Sorry!)  Whenever a Hough grandchild needed a “come to Jesus, talk,” ironically, Joe knew just how to deliver it without sounding like a sermon. All four grandkids agree that Joe’s guidance was wiser and more useful than their parents’ offerings. 

“Joe’s daily ritual was reading the New York Times each morning at the breakfast table out loud to everyone, whether you wanted to hear it or not. Lively discussions ensued, which Joe reveled in, and usually continued to the dinner table that night. The Hough household usually had one or two extra plates set at dinner time. It was common for friends, family, colleagues, and his children’s friends to stop for discussion, debate, and fellowship over a great meal cooked by Heidi.

“Joe is survived by his wife of 63 years, Heidi; his sons and their spouses, Mark and Susannah and Matthew and Mary; and his grandchildren, Joseph, Sam, Riley, and Ellie.

“A memorial service will be held on June 25, 2023, at 2:00 pm in the sanctuary of the Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 W. Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. 

The family is asking that instead of flowers, donations be made to Pilgrim Place Resident Health and Support Program (, Claremont United Church of Christ (, or the Keck School of Medicine, Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute (”