A few months ago I was at Carroll’s Hy-Vee shopping and happened upon Mr. Hughes — a highly respected, beloved and recently retired teacher and coach at Carroll High School — for the first time in 27 years.
As we caught up I mentioned to my wife that Mr. Hughes (Tim Hughes to most readers, but always Mr. Hughes to me and generations of other CHS students) was my wrestling coach. To put in plainly, I was, well, very mediocre on the mat — and that’s at a good meet. I joked about that all these years later with Coach Hughes and my wife.
Without skipping a beat in that Hy-Vee aisle, Mr. Hughes didn’t join in my self-deprecating anecdotes. He had a lesson. “Actually you were a very good wrestler, you just didn’t believe you were a good wrestler,” Mr. Hughes said.
I had to take a step back, compose myself.
Here I am nearly three decades later, with a teacher who has had thousands of students, and he remembers me — and exactly my weakness. Here he is, still trying to reinforce the confidence of someone he hasn’t seen much since the early 1990s.
I’d like to thank him for that, and I’m surely not the only one, judging by the outpouring of current and former student testimonials spanning Mr. Hughes’ wonderful life in Carroll’s classrooms.
Here’s my story: I first met Mr. Hughes as a junior high wrestler. I admired him and looked up to his leadership. The smart, strong and stocky sort, his practices were no nonsense — no Bobby Knight-style yelling and self-promoting fanfare, just hard drilling and technical instruction that emphasized fundamentals. Life hack: you can never go wrong being solid on the fundamentals, no matter the endeavor.
When it came time for competition, Coach Hughes was always the calm pragmatist. You have practiced, now execute, he would tell us.
I was never more than an average athlete, but there are a couple sporting moments I remember fondly under his watch. The first was a match with a kid I could not get a handle on. He must have been lifting weights since elementary school. While continually thinking about how coach was going to be disappointed, I also knew I was overmatched physically. The loss hurt and when I walked over to Coach Hughes he had a resigned, bemused look on his face and said, “That kid was really strong.”
Yeah, coach, lucky to get out of there with both arms, I thought.
Then, during a practice face-off, I had my knee hyperextended from a shoot on my planted leg. I hit the mat in pain. The next thing I knew, Mr. Hughes rushed over and carried me to the side of the mat.
I had never had a father in my life, but I knew right then this is what it must feel like. Mr. Hughes made sure to check the knee thoroughly and comforted me by reassuring that everything looked all right. No “walk it off ” — he made sure to show his concern by saying it might be sore; let’s keep an eye on it.
I didn’t just admire Mr. Hughes; I wanted to be like him.
Mr. Hughes taught high school biology, so leaving wrestling after middle school, I didn’t get to see him a for a couple years.
Academics came easy to me, but, if I’m being honest, I certainly wasn’t going the extra mile to achieve. Young and naïve, I still had no self confidence, direction or purpose.
That changed. And the catalyst for that change was Mr. Hughes.
Somewhere in the middle of my sophomore year, my mother went to parent-teacher conferences. Mom worked nights, and the early evenings were not a good time, but she was there, right where she was supposed to be that night — and I am forever grateful for that.
When Mom returned, I asked how things went.
“Mr. Hughes said you are an excellent student, and not meant to lead a normal life,” Mom responded.
It’s one of the more penetrating sentences I’ve absorbed in life. It made all the difference, having this man, Mr. Hughes, whom I admired so much, take the time to tell my mother that I had a future.
I became more diligent, gained some confidence and graduated with honors from Carroll High School.
I continued on to college, thanks to the renewed effort at the high school level. Studies went reasonably well for a couple years until I ran into some failures. My confidence was shaken and I began to spiral back. I took some time away from school to work and earn paychecks.
But I never lost the motivation that came with that vote of confidence from Mr. Hughes.
I would often ruminate on what Mr. Hughes had said to my mother at those parent-teacher conferences.
Soon, I realized his expectation had become my expectation.
I returned to college and hit the books harder than ever, getting my bachelor’s degree, and later, a master’s.
Today, I am fortunate to live just outside of Carroll and enjoy a balanced, rewarding life, one full of family, community and some hard-earned career successes.
Mr. Hughes’ reach is long and enduring at Carroll High School. He impacted thousands of students in thousands of positive ways, small and large.
For me, Mr. Hughes wasn’t just a life-changing figure. He was a part of defining life. And Coach Hughes, Mr. Hughes, deserves to know that as he retires from a profession to which he is an extraordinary credit.
Ken Hoevelkamp is a 1993 graduate of Carroll High School and attended Iowa State University, receiving both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering. He is married to Dr. Suzanne Feigofsky; they have two children, Sophie, 10, and Sawyer, 4. He is the owner and principal engineer of Western Ground Improvement.