He’s interviewed presidents and prime ministers, villains and mass murderers.
He’s covered cultural revolutions, wars and government-sanctioned massacres. Enemy police forces monitored his phone calls. A jailed Nelson Mandela was sustained by his news articles during the South African apartheid.
John Hughes provided information to the ignorant and a voice to the freedom fighters. He painted the world with his pen. He has worn many hats as a diplomat, editor and adviser but will always remain, at heart, a reporter.
“Journalism is a wonderful, magical profession,” Hughes said. “I can’t believe I got paid to do the things I did, visit the countries I did. Everything was fresh and interesting, and you learned something new every day. You never knew what would come next.”
Currently a journalism professor in BYU’s Department of Communications, Hughes may initially attract attention as one of the few on faculty who is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Upon further inspection, his 84 years of life experience reveal other, more attention-garnering features.
His accolades are many and his experience vast. Perhaps most widely known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Hughes also held these titles at different points along the way: editor of the Christian Science Monitor, editor of the Deseret News, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, director of the Voice of America in Washington, D.C. during the Reagan Administration, assistant secretary of state to Secretary of State George Shultz and assistant secretary-general and director of communications at the United Nations.
Though his craft calls for him to be an excellent storyteller — and he is — Hughes is not one to brag.
“He just kind of rolls out his stories; he doesn’t beat his chest,” said Steve Fidel, fellow journalist and the director of The Universe at BYU.
Hughes’ youngest son agrees. “He uses his stories to teach and illustrate points … they always have a purpose,” Evan Hughes said.
Hughes’ first encounter with journalism was delivering newspapers in London as a teenager. While he attended boarding school in England he received further assurance that journalism would be in his future.
“Unfortunate experiences in chemistry lab and the physics lab led my professors to believe I had little prospects in those fields,” he said.
His English master saw a budding talent, telling Hughes, “I think maybe you can write. You should go to the London School of Journalism when you graduate.”
He never did go to school for journalism. It was World War II, and Hughes remembers watching dogfights in the air over London and sleeping in underground bomb shelters. His father fought for England in North Africa and, upon returning home, moved the family to South Africa. There Hughes began working for his first newspaper.
His family joined the Christian Science church, and when he discovered the Christian Science Monitor, the church’s highly acclaimed paper, he left for the headquarters in Boston to try and land a job. He was hired and sent back to Africa as a foreign correspondent.
Hughes was in Africa during the dark days of apartheid, when foreign correspondents were not welcome. His phone calls were monitored. Black leaders or white liberals brave enough to talk to him did so with socks stuffed in the phone’s mouthpiece so their conversation couldn’t be overheard by the special police force.
In ensuing years, Hughes covered many international war stories, including the Cuban Missile Crisis from Moscow, the Cultural Revolution from Hong Kong, the Vietnam War and an attempted communist coup in Indonesia with a bloody aftermath, for which he won a Pulitzer.
Such events are difficult to cover without emotional involvement in a field where dispassionate coverage was necessary.
“Of course I was emotionally involved,” Hughes said. “You can be confronted with cruelty and stuff you wouldn’t see in Provo, Utah. I didn’t do well with dictators who murdered their own people, but you had to get past that and cultivate sources on both sides. Your overall mission is to report fairly and unemotionally.”
In a day without email, Internet or cell phones, Hughes sometimes had to be creative with how he got his stories to his editor. When the Indonesian government closed down the country, he was left without cable-wireless or newspaper offices. Hughes and two other Western correspondents would take carbon copies of their stories to the airport. There they found multiple passengers headed to free countries and sent each passenger home with an assignment to get the story to a wireless office.
“At least one copy of every one of my stories got to Boston,” Hughes said.
Hughes has been in the middle of tear gas, demonstrations and, occasionally, the wrong set of soldiers. Once while reporting on Hong Kong’s cultural revolution, he found himself in the middle of communist student-fighters.
“One grabbed me and said, ‘Are you an American?’ I thought, ‘Bye-bye wife and children,'” Hughes said. “I did a terrible thing; I changed my nationality. I said, ‘I’m Canadian.’ He wanted to talk to me then; he was interested in going to a university in Canada. So I described Canada’s higher educational system.”
Even with some close calls, Hughes has never been shot. “You’re not stupid,” he said. “You choose the troops you go out with.”
Hughes excelled in several other contexts aside from foreign correspondence. He worked for the U.S. government during the Reagan administration. As assistant secretary of state, he was privy to top-secret information, including CIA names and operatives. He also owned several newspapers in Cape Cod for some years. It was his wife, Peggy, a BYU alumna, who introduced Hughes to BYU and he eventually became a professor here.
BYU associate professor Edward Carter, who works in the communications department, said Hughes’ vast expertise has greatly benefited the department. “You almost couldn’t create a better professor, editor, journalist. He’s seen it all. Who else out there has excelled so well in so many places and in so many different contexts?” Carter said.
President Gordon B. Hinckley asked Hughes to be the first non-LDS editor of the Deseret News, but he declined at first Hughes because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to return to BYU. With regard to his leave of absence, President Hinckley was reassuring. “Don’t worry,” Hughes remembered him saying, “I’ve got some influence down there.”
Hughes brought a vast world of experience to the Deseret News. Reporters who worked under him remember him as a “perfect gentleman” with a quiet confidence about him. In a profession where some become cynical and hard-bitten, Hughes remained kind, warmhearted and composed.
Carter remembered working as a fresh BYU grad at the Deseret News while Hughes was editor. “He’s excelled, but he cares about people, and he’s easy to talk to. You can go to him, and he won’t bite your head off,” Carter said.
Deseret News columnist Lee Benson remembers Hughes as a capable editor. “He had a great sense of humor and was a really good delegator, but he’s no pushover,” Benson said. “He’s one of those guys who’s pretty smooth on the surface, like a swan gracefully going across a lake, but underneath (he’s) got those legs going 25 miles an hour. He works a lot harder than he lets on.”
At 84, John Hughes is still working hard as an associate professor at BYU, and he loves it. But with many of his colleagues from the newsroom already deceased, he also feels retirement is near.
“I”m lucky to still be around,” Hughes said. “I think it’s time (to look toward retirement). It will be nice to decompress.”
His son doubts that retirement will slow Hughes down. “He’s going to be so bored. I’m sure he’ll stay busy,” he said.
Carter said BYU will miss Hughes’ expertise and wisdom. “That’s a big loss for us. You don’t replace John Hughes; that’s impossible to do. He’s brought such strength and credibility to our department. We’ll miss him greatly.”
Hughes looks forward to having more time to read — especially the news. He’s already published four books, including his recently published autobiography, and he may continue writing.
As those who know him can attest, he will still find ways to learn something new in retirement.