Legislature heaps praise on Grays Harbor journalist John C. Hughes

He’s a journalist, storyteller, historian and teacher all rolled into one. He’s a legend — not in his own unassuming, razor-sharp mind, but in the minds of those who worked with him, or came to life as subjects of his prose or, on occasion, felt the sting of his pen on the editorial page.

John C. Hughes has stuck around a very long time — 42 years writing, editing and publishing The Daily World in Aberdeen and, after leaving the paper in 2008, serving as the chief historian in the Secretary of State’s Legacy Program in Olympia. He shared his considerable talents with generations of young reporters who hung around just long enough to learn the craft, then moved on to bigger worlds, bigger markets. He stayed, even though we all know in our heart of hearts that he could have written for any English language newspaper in the world. He is that good.

When he left newspapers behind for his new job, he did not leave the home in Hoquiam where he raised two daughters and lives with his wife, Patsy. He wears his lifelong Harbor residency as a badge of respect and pride. His love of his community is unmatched and never-ending.

Even as I write these words about my mentor, I find myself wondering: Do I have the right turn of phrase? Am I doing him justice?

Turns out that Hughes stuck around so long that he became a little bit of history himself Tuesday morning when senators gathered on the state Senate floor, outnumbered by Hughes’ family, friends and colleagues seated in the gallery, and passed a resolution honoring him for five decades of community service.

The honor was supposed to be a surprise, but it’s pretty hard to keep secrets from someone as inquisitive as Hughes. It didn’t help that state Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, spilled the beans a few weeks ago during a Starbucks coffee shop encounter with Hughes.

Hughes, 71, accepted the honor with modesty and grace, and managed to hold his emotions in check in the gallery and later in a spirited reception in the office of his boss, Secretary of State Kim Wyman. She doesn’t get credit for hiring Hughes — that distinction goes to her predecessor, Sam Reed. Tuesday they both heaped praise on Hughes.

“Hiring John was Sam’s best move,” Wyman said. “John is the state’s chief storyteller, carrying forward the stories about the people of Washington.”

In less than seven years, Hughes has cranked out meaty biographies on former governors John Spellman and Booth Gardner, former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, and the Blethen and Woods newspaper families. Hughes has added 10 comprehensive, online oral histories to the mix, leaving Reed to shake his head at how prolific Hughes is.

“He is a very colorful writer, but what I got was much more,” Reed recalled in a Daily World tribute to Hughes prepared to mark the Tuesday celebration. “As a newspaperman, he’s a terrific interviewer. He’s been able to get information out of these major political figures that no one has ever been able to get before.”

Hughes dives deep into all his subjects, exhibiting curiosity and enthusiasm that open the floodgates to good stories. While my mentor is chronically prone to hyperbole, I no doubt believe him when he says the most inspirational person he’s met to date was Lillian Walker, a Bremerton civil rights activist who formed an NAACP chapter in the shipyard city in the early 1940s, and staged protests against the racism that was so rampant at the time. Called the “soul” of Bremerton, Walker died in January 2012 at the age of 98. Hughes met her and interviewed the feisty African American activist for an oral history piece when she was 95.

Hughes and his colleagues in the Legacy Project keep burning daylight from tomorrow, capturing stories told by our state’s elderly citizens before it’s too late.

“I feel such a sense of privilege — and urgency — to be collecting and sharing these stories,” Hughes told me during an exchange of emails Wednesday. “A former governor fighting Parkinson’s (Gardner); a judge who broke the color barrier on the state Supreme Court (Charles Z. Smith); a civil rights pioneer no one knew about (Walker); a German-born Jew who helped liberate Dachau as an American GI (Arnold Samuels); and a 92-year-old who helped build B-17s (Regina Tollfeldt).

At Tuesday’s reception filled with love and admiration for a former paperboy, cub reporter who once earned $78.50 a week, esteemed journalist and colon cancer survivor, Hughes said it had the feel of a wake, bar mitzvah and retirement party all rolled into one.

But he quickly put to rest any notions that he’s about to retire.

“I’m having the time of my life, and I feel that I’m still on top of my game,” he said.

I couldn’t agree more, brother John.