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WHS Loves Hughes

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

Foot stomping and the rhythmic chanting of “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry” greeted assistant principal Jerry Hughes as he approached the Waccamaw High gym on Friday afternoon.

He’d been told the school was having a last-minute pep rally for teams headed into the playoffs. Instead, a sea of white shirts adorned with his image, greeted him as he made his way from the cafeteria to the gym.

With tears running down his usually jovial face, Hughes turned toward a row of windows and stared out at the courtyard.

The cheers became louder and echoed through the hallway. Grinning through his tears, he took a deep breath and ran between rows of cheering people, past the band, the cheerleaders and straight into the arms of his wife, Sharon.

It wasn’t the first time he’d cried that day. As the school year winds down, Hughes occasionally tears up thinking about retiring after 41 years as a teacher and administrator.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “I’m going to miss it.”

And the students, teachers and staff will miss him.

“He’s really touched a lot of people,” said Julie Humowitz, a social studies teacher and student council advisor.

To show Hughes how much he’s meant to them, students and teachers started planning the surprise assembly last month.

Humowitz, along with Cara Cook, a special education teacher, helped orchestrate the top-secret event. They ordered 400 Mr. Hughes T-shirts with his picture on the front and his handprint on the back, along with the words “The Heart of WHS from 1998 to 2010.”

T-shirts were sold to students and passed out just before the assembly. The money raised will send Hughes and his wife on a vacation. By Friday, the fund stood at $1,500.

“We tried our best to keep the secret from him,” Humowitz said.

Whenever he left during lunch to see his wife, a voice on the PA system would announce, “Mr. Hughes has left the building,” and a flurry of activity would begin.

More than 800 students and staff managed to keep the secret safe. Even Sharon Hughes didn’t know until Friday.

“It just shows how much the community cares about him,” principal David Hammel said.

Tension was high when Hughes arrived at school at 7:30 a.m. that morning.

Narvie Stewart, executive assistant at the school, watched for his yellow Volkswagen Beetle to pull in next to Hammel’s lime green Ford Mustang.

Hughes walked through the front doors, greeting students along the way; just another Friday in May.

Sweeping into the front office, he didn’t miss an opportunity to greet staff, pat a student on the back and give a compliment.

“He’s never met a stranger,” Stewart said.

His back pats are legendary, which is why the hand is on the T-shirt.

“He’s always there to support you,” said Patrick Loftus, a junior.

Between the time Hughes arrived and the first bell rang at 7:58 a.m., he’d patted the backs of at least 30 students and teachers. He’d waltzed with one of the band teachers, Nancy Randall, hugged Humowitz, reminded guys to take off their hats, helped substitutes get settled in and called to set up a fire drill.

“It’s a great day in paradise,” he said as he weaved through students and teachers crowding the hallways.

By lunchtime, he’d walked through the school about four times, sat in on chemistry and government classes and visited special education students aboard a bus bound for the beach.

When students filled the hallways between classes, Hughes was there. He greeted students and teachers, inspiring shy smiles, grins and even boisterous cries of “Hey, Mr. Hughes!”

Teachers smiled and tried to act natural, but wherever Hughes went, they gave him sideways glances and then went to back to their conspiring.

During class time, Hughes was in his office to deal with discipline issues.

When students came in, Hughes sat back in his chair and handed them their referral slip to read, then gave them a chance to explain. He never got angry. He only said he expected better from them.

“My dad always said, ‘son, there are two things I want to teach you. I want to teach you how to work and how to respect yourself and others,’ ” Hughes said.

He tries to pass both lessons on to students.

Students who come in fighting are invited to settle their dispute with maturity.

“We can’t cuss or raise our voices,” he said. “You just talk and settle it as young adults. I don’t care if you like each other or not.”

Hughes will stand outside while the students come to an agreement, or sit inside and listen quietly, if they give him permission to stay.

His method of discipline has made him a favorite, according to Sharon Bray, a science teacher.

“When students are in trouble, they want to go and see Mr. Hughes,” she said. “He will be missed.”

Other times, students just drop by to talk.

Brian Will, a senior, remembers visiting Hughes to get a pass, and ending up having a serious conversation about his future.

“Just those few minutes meant a lot,” he said.

To give admirers a place to leave their memories, Ross Lindsay, a freshman, created a Facebook page for Hughes. Since it went live last week, more than 500 people, including current and former students and coworkers, have checked it out.

“He was always there to talk whenever I needed him and never hesitated to give it to me straight,” Ashley Scott, a 2004 graduate, wrote. “When I walked across that stage, and he told me he was proud of me, I knew that he meant exactly that.”

Everyone has a Jerry Hughes story.

“It is hard to just pick one. I would have to say every moment,” Humowitz wrote. “His smile and connection with every student... he is one of a kind. We are all lucky to have had him touch our lives.”

Hughes believes he is the lucky one.

“I can’t say enough about the teachers and staff and students at this school,” he said. “They’re amazing.”

Hammel said the feeling is reciprocal.

“It’s been an honor to have him here with me. I’m going to miss him greatly,” he said. “He’s a very, very good assistant principal, but he’s an even better man.”

Watching Hughes leave at lunchtime every day to take care of his wife as she dealt with a series of illnesses made an impression on Hammel.

“His integrity, his caring,” Hammel said. “He’s a family-first guy.”

For Hughes, family is not defined by blood ties. His family includes the Waccamaw Warriors.

After 13 years as assistant principal, he knows everyone’s name, their families and the challenges they’ve overcome. Just thinking about some of the students’ triumphs brings tears to his eyes.

“I wish I had big enough arms to hold them all,” he said.

With his arms open, ready to give a hug or a pat on the back, Hughes plans to keep following his dad’s advice and work hard until he turns in his keys.

“You work until you get the job done,” he said.

But teachers and staff expect to see Hughes again in the fall, although his official retirement date is June 21. That’s why Hammel is saving Hughes a spot by the gate to Warrior Field, where he can welcome students and graduates and cheer from the sidelines: “Go Warriors!”

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