“There’s [sic] some good memories,” Hank Hughes declared with a sparkle in his eye.
Fifty-one years ago, a youthful Hughes came to work at Florida Tech. This August, he will give up his post-hole digger and retire to his West Virginia farm.
His energy, sacrifices, and loyalty are a testament to the values that built this university. Hughes is one of the giants of Florida Tech.
A Beautiful Relationship
The “good memories” began on a summer day in 1969.
While 150,000-plus hippies gathered at Yasgur’s dairy farm for Woodstock Music and Art Festival, a muscular 24-year-old man was heading to his job working for Bob Nelson, the owner of Nelson’s Nursery on Edgewood Drive.
One morning, Florida Tech founder and president Jerry Keuper and Perry Clendenin showed up at the nursery. The crane that Keuper planned to use to plant several large palm trees had broken, and he wanted to know if Nelson would rent one of his cranes to plant the trees along University Boulevard.
Nelson agreed but stipulated that he wanted Hank Hughes to operate the crane. Hughes remembers that Keuper and Clendenin watched as he placed the trees on the medium.
Three weeks passed. Once again, Keuper appeared at Nelson’s Nursery. He asked Nelson if he could talk to Hughes.
In the conversation that followed, Keuper said,
“Hank, we like the way you work. Would you consider coming to F.I.T.?”
The job paid a princely $2.25 per hour. It would be a pay cut, but Hughes liked the college president. He said he would consider it.
A day later, Hughes resigned from the nursery, telling his friends that he was going to work for a rocket scientist with a passion for palm trees.
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
A Hard Scrapple Beginning
Queen (pronounced “Gwen”) Anderson “Hank” Hughes was born April 15, 1945, in Sod, West Virginia.
There is some irony in that the man who would devote a half-century to maintaining the plants, palms trees and, yes, sod at Florida Tech came from a country town named Sod.
Sod was an unincorporated rural community located in a remote corner of Lincoln County. The county’s backwoods’ “hollers” had a reputation for spawning men and women who possessed what novelist Tom Wolfe would later call “the right stuff.”
Chuck Yeager, who was the first person to break the sound barrier, bluegrass fiddler Clark Kessinger and professional football player Russ Thomas all hailed from Lincoln County.
You grew up fast in Sod.
Shawn Hughes, Hank’s grandson, recalls his grandfather telling him about going to work when he was 7 or 8 to earn money to buy a chicken to feed his family. The family’s needs forced Hank to leave school.
At 18, Hank decided to seek his fortune in Florida. It proved a fateful decision.
In short order, he married Eileen Lawrence. A daughter, Rhonda, and a son, Terry, were born, and Hank went to work for Bob Nelson at the nursery.
A Mighty Man
Hughes discovered that F.I.T., as the college was then known, was a remarkable place.
A spirit of camaraderie animated every undertaking. When there was a job to do, everyone pitched in. The mantra was “can-do.” If weeding needed to be done, Keuper would pick up a pitchfork and get to work; if the task at hand were mulching, the president would mulch.
On numerous occasions, Keuper and Hughes took turns driving the university’s tractor and front-loader, and they became fast friends. It was a friendship based on mutual respect.
Hughes was a Renaissance man. At least, that is what Keuper thought.
Keuper remained adamant that there was no job that Hughes could not do.
For a time in the 1970s, Hughes served as Keuper’s driver. At that time, the university-owned a dilapidated Greyhound bus that served a variety of functions.
Sometimes, Hughes ferried Bill Jurgens, who then served as the coach for the men’s crew team and who went on to become the university’s longtime athletics director, and the crew team to competitions.
On one occasion, Hughes drove a delegation of Florida Tech faculty and administrators to Miami. The group was to fly to Columbia for a meeting of the Florida Columbia partners, and Keuper instructed Hughes to return to Melbourne a week later with the Florida Tech delegation.
On the appointed day, Hughes pulled up at Miami International Airport in the ancient bus. Hughes waited, but no one appeared.
Finally, he decided to enter the airport to find out what had happened.
As Hughes entered the arrivals concourse, he heard his name echoing over the airport’s announcement system.
“Will Mr. Hank Hughes please come to the courtesy phone?
Will Mr. Hank Hughes please come to the courtesy phone?”
Hughes found the phone and picked up.
He discovered that, while in Columbia, Keuper had hurt his back and needed help getting to the bus.
Hughes found Keuper propped up against the wall at the arrival gate. Keuper could not walk, so Hughes lifted him into his arms and carried him to the bus.
Part of the Family
What made Florida Tech unique, Hughes says, was that the university was like a family. Faculty and staff felt respected. You could speak your mind without fear of recriminations.
Hughes recalled numerous occasions when he and Keuper would work in the botanical garden or on trips to Tallahassee.
“He’d eat,” Hughes said. “You’d eat.”
If there was a job to be done, Hughes recalled, they did it together.
“Dr. Keuper had qualities that very few people have,” Hughes said. “I seen [sic] him one time, when he needed money for a new dorm. We were standing in the ball field. It was raining. He told us, ‘I’m going to Tallahassee, and I’m going to get some money for three new dorms.’
Well, I thought he was kidding. When he came back, he had a grant for Southgate. He was gifted.”
A Life of Service
After Keuper’s retirement, Hughes continued to serve the university.
Andy Revay, who served as College of Engineering dean before becoming the university’s academic vice president, observed that Hughes seemed “to know everybody on campus. He was a terrific fellow.”
Lynn Weaver, Florida Tech’s third president, felt tremendous admiration for Hughes.
“I absolutely loved Hank,” said Anita Weaver, the president’s wife. “I remember the sparkle in his eye.”
To the Weavers, Hughes was a “marvelous ambassador” of what was best about Florida Tech.
One time, when Hughes was working outside the president’s office, he and Weaver talked for a few minutes. At the end of the conversation, Hughes surprised Weaver, when he told him that he had a Ph.D. An incredulous Weaver exclaimed that he had not known that. Hughes smiled and pointed at a post hole digger (PHD) that he was using.
Florida Tech’s fifth and current president, T. Dwayne McCay, encountered Hughes his first day on campus as university provost in June 2003.
“I took a walk around in a nice suit soon to be sweated through,” McCay recalled. “As I walked by two groundskeepers, I paused to chat.”
The men asked if McCay was new to campus. He told them that he was the new provost. The men welcomed him to Florida Tech.
“As I turned the corner of the building,” McCay heard Hughes ask his partner, “’What the hell is a provost?’”
Hughes is a marvel. We are all indebted to him. When asked to describe his decades of service to the university, he smiled and said,
“Hard to put into words all the memories. This is a beautiful place. They’re some awfully good people here. This place would sink without the people. Lovely people. Since I’m one of the oldest, I know everyone. I know the kids from year to year. I see them graduate. I congratulate them. I wish them the very best of luck and tell them not to forget about us. I tell my grandkids—I got three very special grandkids. My oldest one, Shawn, he’ll say ‘Grandpa, did you really do all that?’ Yeah, we really did all that.”
Isaac Newton once observed that, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Hughes is a Florida Tech giant. His smile, and that marvelous sparkle in his eye, will be missed. We are all better for having known him.
Note: My thanks to Ken Droscher. Much of this Secret History installment was drawn from his 2008 interview with Hank Hughes, which is part of the Florida Tech Oral History Project.