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Early Life & Influences

"God help you if you're the third son..." - Hugh Carey

 

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Hugh Leo Carey was born on April 11, 1919 in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, the third son of Denis and Margaret Carey.  Both his maternal and paternal grandparents had immigrated to New York in the 19th century from Ireland.  His father’s parents came from County Galway while his mother’s hailed from County Tyrone in present day Northern Ireland, UK.   

In order to escape famine and oppressive British rule, thousands of Irish immigrated to America during that time.  Most, like the Carey’s, settled in and around New York City.  Familiar with organizing on the local and regional levels in order to obtain more political and financial stability, the Irish quickly took political control of the city.  By the early 1900’s, Irish Americans occupied most of the lower level governmental positions in Brooklyn.  In 1918 Alfred E. Smith, the son of an Irish immigrant mother from the rough streets of the Lower East Side became the first Irish Catholic Governor of New York.  Like many Irish immigrants of their time, Hugh’s parents were big supporters of Irish leaders like Smith and of other Democrats, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal programs helped the Carey family stay afloat during the Great Depression.

Hugh’s Irish-American upbringing in a Democratic household in the heartof Brooklyn had a great effect on his own political career.  The FDR admirer would grow up to be a liberal Democrat, described by political commentator William V. Shannon as having a “blarneying, street-wise, fast-moving executive style of the Irish politician not seen since the days of Al Smith.” 

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The Carey family. (Standing left to right) Hugh, Denis Jr., Martin and Ed. (Seated left to right) John, Denis Sr., George, and Margaret.

 

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Denis Carey supported his family with the money he earned from his company, Eagle Petroleum, an oil business he started in the early 1920's.  Both of Hugh's parents worked hard, though unsucessfully, to maintain their family's business in the midst of the Great Depression, the worldwide economic depression that left American families like the Carey's struggling to make ends meet.  (See Britannica video to learn more about the devestating effects of the Great Depression.)

By the early 1930's, Eagle Petroleum existed only in name.  With New Deal Programs like the Homeowners Loan Corporation, the Carey's were able to stay afloat.  In the early 1940’s Denis was able to start up a new oil business, though it did not start thriving until the late 1940s and would not become nearly as financially successful as his son Edward’s future oil company. Nevertheless, Hugh’s parents were still able to give him and his brothers Denis Jr., Edward, John, Martin and George a relatively normal, middle class upbringing.

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Hugh was described by his family and friends as a shy, kind of curious youngster with a "propensity to find trouble."  He once accidentally set a rom on fire while tampering with a kerosene space heater.  In addition to being a bit of a troublemaker, Hugh also constantly felt the need to prove his worth to his older brothers Denis Jr. “Joe” and Ed, who liked to have fun at his expense, and gain their respect.  To do so he occasionally partook in foolish, physical risks.  One proved to be near fatal.  Hugh nearly drowned in rough surf as a child, all in an attempt to keep up with his older siblings.  “God help you if you’re the third brother!” Hugh would say years later, reflecting back.

Unlike those brothers of his, who were all extremely athletic and really into sports, Hugh was not.  He took a keen interest in books and was an avid reader. As a result, Hugh would grow up to be an excellent student, graduating from St. Augustine’s Academy and High School in Brooklyn.  His family believed he’d enter into the priesthood or go to school to become a scholar.  However when Hugh enrolled at John’s University as a history major, he was not really sure what he wanted to do with his life and hoped in time, while taking classes and working at a funeral home to help pay his school expenses, he’d figure it out. 

It would be many years before Hugh would figure out what he would want to do with his life.  In 1939, Hugh had joined the New York National Guard to make a little extra money.  When the U.S. entered into World War II in 1941, the National Guard became federalized and Hugh and his regiment were sent off to training camp in Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

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