Ever think you know somebody pretty well? You work together for most of a decade. You park your car close to theirs. You know their spouse, you’ve met their kids. You’ve enjoyed some lunches together.
I thought I knew John Hughes pretty well.
John – Mr. Hughes – was editor of the Deseret News for 10 years, from 1997 to 2007. He hired me to be a news columnist when he talked me off a Santa Barbara beach in 1998.
I knew he was a lifetime newsman. I knew he’d spent a previous life working for the Christian Science Monitor. We all knew he’d won a Pulitzer Prize.
But that was more or less the extent of what was known around here of his curriculum vitae.
He was perpetually congenial — odd for an editor — and as unassuming as Clark Kent. He was definitely old school, which fit since he was already in his 60's when he took over as editor at the DNews. He always wore a coat and tie to work. Something else he always wore was this perpetual amused smile that suggested no matter what you threw at him, he’d been there, seen that, and plenty more besides.
Turns out we had no idea.
I know this now because last week Nebbadoon Press, a publisher in Connecticut, released “Paper Boy to Pulitzer” — John Hughes’ autobiography.
In it, he tells us everything he didn’t tell us.
Let me see if I can hit the high points before I run out of room:
He was born in Wales and grew up in London — when it was getting bombed by Hitler. His father, Evan, fought the Nazis in South Africa, a country he liked so much he moved there after the war with his wife and only son, John, who was 16 and got a job at the local newspaper. The family had joined the Christian Science Church (not to be confused with Scientology, or, for that matter, Mormonism) and after a few years John, the budding journalist, decided to hop a freighter for Boston to see if he could land a job with the church’s highly regarded newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor.
He got it. His first beat was Africa. He was there when colonial rule ended, when Ghana got independence, when apartheid began to crumble. His next beat was Asia. He covered the Vietnam War at its height (President Johnson once called John to the White House to ask him how he thought things were going). In Indonesia, he won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting the collapse of President Sukarno’s regime. He also won the Overseas Press Club award for best international reporting for a series on the burgeoning illicit drug trade (this was the 1960's) that sent him around the world.
Wait, there’s more. In a long and winding career set up by those days when he was a cross between Indiana Jones and Woodward & Bernstein, he was at one time or another:
- Editor of the Christian Science Monitor.
- A Nieman Fellow at Harvard.
- President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
- A member of the Pulitzer Board.
- Director of the Voice of America in Washington, D.C., during the Reagan Administration,
- Assistant Secretary of State to Secretary of State George Shultz.
- Assistant Secretary-General and Director of Communications to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the United Nations.
That came about after he took a teaching job at Brigham Young University — John’s wife, Peggy, is Mormon — and the News’ board of directors asked him for some consulting help.
That led to them asking him to run the newspaper, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Hughes pointed out he wasn’t Mormon, which led to a visit with then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley.
He writes about their relationship in his book: “I asked him what he wanted the Deseret News to be. He said he wanted it to be a strong regional newspaper, reaching out to all religions, all races, all ethnic groups. I asked him what independence the paper’s editor would have. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we’ve got to give you running room. We can’t have people over here (in church headquarters) telling you what to do.’ ”
Thus the man who had run a mainstream newspaper for one church wound up running another mainstream newspaper for another church.
At neither at the Monitor nor the Deseret News was his news judgment as editor interfered with. “One was very much like the other,” he said.
At both papers, editorials were sent to church headquarters for review, but after his first six months at the Deseret News Hughes got a call from President Hinckley.
“He said, 'Don’t bother to send them over any more, we’re good.' There was a huge amount of good will and trust on both sides.”
After reading an advance copy of “Paper Boy to Pulitzer,” I called John on his cell phone. He and Peggy are in Maine for the summer, prior to his return this fall to BYU, where at 84 he is still a professor.
I asked him why I had to read his book to learn about all his adventures.
He laughed. “Well, if you’d asked,” he said, “I’d have told you.”
I told him I thought it was remarkable that he didn’t start every sentence when he was talking to us whining reporters with, “When I was getting shot at in Vietnam ” or, “There was this time at the White House ” or, “Let me tell you what it’s like getting quotes out of a dictator ”
He laughed again. “You don’t need to ride people,” he said.
I asked him if he had any advice for a reporter.
“Yes,” he said. “Get behind the policemen, not in front of them.”
John said he wrote his book (available at nebbadoon.com or wherever ebooks are sold) for his children and grandchildren. But more than that, he wrote it because “I thought I had a love story in me, and it’s about journalism. The greatest profession in the world.”
Even when John Hughes finally wrote his life story, it wasn’t about him.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]