The living room of the headmaster's house at the Gunston Day School is tastefully furnished with wingback chairs and a grand piano. But when former Gov. Harry Hughes enters with his lunch on a recent visit, he takes the worst possible seat - a brown plastic folding chair, where he sits and delicately balances a plate on his knee.

Someone asks why he didn't choose a more comfortable chair."This one seemed fine," says Hughes, who will turn 80 next week and hasn't lost the air of modesty and decency that served him well over 30 years in public office. He also still has the strong jaw that photographers loved, that great political hair (easily the best hair of any recent Maryland governor), and the courtly manners that speak to his humble, Eastern Shore heritage.

He spent much of the last three years writing his autobiography, My Unexpected Journey, which he views as something to leave his family. But the recently published book is also a tour of a half-century of Maryland politics and the dramas that shaped the state: a struggle over civil rights, urban flight and scandal and corruption at the highest level.

Now Hughes, widely credited with restoring integrity to the governor's office, has been coaxed out of retirement to play a small but influential role in this year's elections. He vetted Mayor Martin O'Malley's finalists for running mate and campaigned for his old friend, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. Hughes, whose wife Patricia was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 13 years ago, is also making the case for expanded stem cell research.

He is upset by the nasty and divisive politics that have become the norm and by the increasing influence of religion on government and policy decisions. For Hughes - who was known as an honest and gentlemanly public official who didn't even ask his staff or appointees their political party - the changes are discouraging.

"I worked very closely with the Republican legislators and considered them good friends," says Hughes, a Democrat who served two terms as governor, from 1979 to 1987. "There's an old cliche: The art of government is compromise, and we haven't seen much of that in the last four years."

Hughes thinks religion has stymied advances in stem cell research. And he was incensed by radio host Rush Limbaugh's attacks on Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's and appeared in an ad for Cardin, a proponent of embryonic stem cell research. Limbaugh suggested Fox was acting in the ads to exaggerate the effects of the disease.

"They ought to run that Rush Limbaugh out of the country," Hughes says. "I don't know why the network wouldn't fire him."

There are few people who can raise the ire of the placid Hughes. Rush Limbaugh is one of them. William Donald Schaefer is another. Schaefer, who followed Hughes as governor and undid several Hughes initiatives, both political and personal, is not spared in the book.

When Schaefer took office, his companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, redecorated the public rooms of the governor's mansion after Pat Hughes had painstakingly restored them. "I almost could not believe Schaefer could be so petty," Hughes writes, "but of course I should have known better."

And as governor, Schaefer built the Baltimore light rail line that Hughes had decided was not a priority because it would run parallel to the Jones Falls Expressway. Hughes notes with amazement that the project went forward even when the cost doubled, from $290 million to $600 million.

"But you know Schaefer - he likes to build things," Hughes writes. "Education programs or things like that, he could care less. But building things is easy, particularly if someone names them after you. It is amazing they didn't call that the `Schaefer Light Rail!'"

"Wait till he reads that!" Hughes says in an interview at his Denton home, momentarily relishing the old rivalry.

Still on the scene

His perch on the Eastern Shore has, to some extent, insulated him from state politics. But Hughes never left the scene entirely. He was chairman of the state Democratic Party during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's first term, and he has advised O'Malley this year in his run for governor.

"It gets in your blood," Hughes told a group of students that day at the Gunston Day School in Centreville. Hughes appeared with his co-author on the book, former Sun political writer John W. Frece. What interested students more than politics were Hughes' days as a semi-pro baseball player on the Shore.

Raised in Denton, Hughes was a standout pitcher who played for the New York Yankees' minor league organization before his career was cut short by injury. (He was inducted into the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame two years ago. "It's a good group," Hughes says. "We all get together and lie.")

Hughes joined the Air Force toward the end of World War II but did not see combat. After the war, he met the woman he would marry, Patricia Donoho, who was taking French lessons from his mother. They were married in 1951, but before it could happen Hughes had to meet the matriarch of his fiancee's family, a great-aunt who lived in Delaware. She asked him two questions:

"Are you a Democrat?"