By Con Marshall
One of Chadron State College’s most prominent graduates, Dr. Eugene M. Hughes, died Wednesday, March 10 in Flagstaff, Ariz., at age 86. He was initially recognized as an outstanding mathematics professor at Chadron State College, his alma mater, and began his career in higher education administration while at CSC and was the president of two major universities and the interim president of a third institution.
Chadron State presented Hughes with its Distinguished Service Award in 1982 and conferred upon him an Honorary Doctorate Degree in 2003.
He was born April 3, 1934 in Scottsbluff and lived there his first 20 years. After graduating from what was then Scottsbluff Junior College, he enrolled at Chadron State. He was named the college’s outstanding senior majoring in mathematics and graduated from the college first in his class of 63 in May 1956.
Hughes spent the following year working on a master’s degree at Kansas State University, but returned in the fall of 1957 to teach math, gaining recognition as an exceptional mentor who helped numerous students launch outstanding careers.
In 1962, he began working on his doctorate at the George Peabody College of Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. He returned to Chadron State in September 1965 to again teach math and serve as director of research. His popularity as a math professor helped the department grow rapidly. Before long, CSC had more math majors than the other three state colleges combined and almost as many as the University of Nebraska.
In the late 1960s, he was promoted to dean of administration and was the leader in acquiring numerous federal grants and developing innovative programs that helped Chadron State earn the title of “Nebraska’s Pioneering College.”
In 1970, Hughes was lured to Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, where he spent 23 years, serving as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, provost and academic vice president before becoming president on July 1, 1979.
During his 14 years as president, Northern Arizona’s state-appropriated operating budget increased 200 percent, the enrollment rose from 12,000 to 18,800 and the number of buildings on campus grew from 69 valued at $150 million to 90 valued at $750 million. Midway through his presidency, NAU was selected by Money Magazine as one of 10 “up and coming” universities in the nation and was among 20 higher education institutions featured in the book “Searching for Academic Excellence.”
In addition, he received the university’s Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters and the 32,000 square foot building containing the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management that he founded was named in his honor.
Hughes became president of Wichita State in July 1993. He was described as “the right man for the job” as he rekindled the university’s spirit and image, reversed the declining enrollment and found ways to greatly increase its support.
Near the end of his tenure at Wichita State, he was chosen the Outstanding Kansas Citizen of the Year by the state’s Society of Professional Engineers.
Shortly after he retired at Wichita State in 1998, the university dedicated the Eugene M. Hughes Metropolitan Complex, which contains a 1,700-seat auditorium and numerous offices. The complex was purchased for the university through a $3.25 million gift that Hughes personally received from a donor who requested anonymity.
In mid-2001 after its president had resigned, Eastern Kentucky University at Richmond recruited Hughes to serve as interim president. At the opening convocation, he told the employees “you will not be riding a dead horse.” Prior to the appointment of a new president, he was credited with providing dynamic leadership that helped stabilize the institution’s financial situation and led to several program improvements.
Hughes was elected secretary/treasurer of the 372-member American Association of State Colleges and Universities in 1988 and was its chairman in 1990-91. He also was a charter member of the presidential commission of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and was a member of the Arizona State Board of Education eight years, including a term as president.
Another of his career highlights occurred in September 2011, when Hughes returned to Chadron State for the “Gene Hughes Math Reunion” that was attended by 20 of his former students who had benefited from his teaching and leadership skills. He had introduced many of them to the coming “computer age,” providing them with as much material as he could find. A number of them used the information as a springboard to innovative and lucrative careers.
“The main reason we got together was to thank Dr. Hughes for what he did for all of us,” said Stan Hoffman, one of the organizers of the reunion. “He was our leader and guiding light. We owe him a lot and are proud that we were taught by him.
“It was fun to talk about all the changes we have seen,” Hoffman added. “Because of Dr. Hughes, we had a head start on what would follow. Things like the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, I-pads and smart phones.”
At the end of the two-day reunion for the alums and their spouses, Hughes spoke to the gathering, noting, “Your success reflects so well on Chadron State and means so much to me. I have been thrilled to hear your stories and learn more about your success.”
In later years, Hughes and his wife, Margaret Ann, resided in Flagstaff, where he served as president/CEO and then chairman of the board of the Museum of Northern Arizona, which focuses on the origin and development of the Four-Corner area and included 47 structures. He also served a six-year term as a member of the national Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee and was its chairman 2009-11.
Survivors include his wife, the couple’s six children and their families. Services will be announced at a later date.