‘A Giant of a Man’: Remembering John Hughes

John Hughes served as the editor of Deseret News from 1997 to 2007. He is pictured here in 2002, a red-letter year for the paper, which provided extensive coverage of the Winter Olympics hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Deseret News Archives)

Robert “John” Hughes, Pulitzer Prize winner, former editor of the Christian Science Monitor and Deseret News and retired BYU faculty member died Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, at 92.

Hughes’ accomplishments and experience spanned the globe, stretching from Wales to South Africa, from Indonesian jungles to federal departments in Washington, D.C. and from Cape Cod to the Wasatch Front.

His influence touched entire nations, but perhaps just as significant were the indelible impressions he left on individuals.

Ed Carter, director of the School of Communications, keeps a file folder of newspaper clippings signed by Hughes in his office at BYU, a memento of his time working with him as a young reporter at Deseret News. 

“If you did a good job, he would give a little note,” Carter said. “That’s just how he was. He took a personal interest in people.”

That interest was manifest in the newsroom as well as the classroom. “Largely because of John, I had the feeling as a student that BYU’s mission was global,” he said.

The path that eventually led Hughes to accept a professorial position at BYU was a long one. He was born on April 28, 1930, to working-class parents in Wales, grew up in London and relocated to South Africa with his family following World War II. 

In his early days as a reporter, which he described in his autobiography, “From Paper Boy to Pulitzer,” he covered beats for British tabloids on Fleet Street before landing a position as a foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

His work with the Monitor took him to Africa, Moscow, Hong Kong, Vietnam and finally Indonesia, where he reported for several years on the violent collapse of the Sukarno regime, earning a Pulitzer Prize.

Hughes also won the Overseas Press Club award in 1970 for his coverage of international narcotics traffic.

Hughes spent six years covering the Asian area for the Christian Science Monitor. He is pictured here in South Vietnam. (Peggy Hughes)

BYU alumnus McKay Coppins, now a staff writer at The Atlantic, remembered Hughes’ stories of reporting abroad and his ethical approach to journalism. “He was clearly a serious journalist and wasn’t afraid to stare down dictators and revolutionaries, but he never lost this sense of human decency and empathy,” he said.

Hughes translated his diverse field experience into ethical case studies, which were so detailed that they approached “the point of absurdity,” Coppins said. “He was really good at making [journalism] feel tactile and alive. It made you excited to get out there and start having your own adventures.” 

Years of adventures abroad as a correspondent came to an end for Hughes in 1970, when he assumed the title of managing editor at the Monitor. 

After a decade-long run in that capacity, he relocated to Washington, D.C. to serve successively as associate director of the United States Information Agency, director of Voice of America and Assistant Secretary of State during the first Reagan administration, which he recounted in his autobiography.

Peggy, John Hughes’ wife, met him while employed at the U.S. Information Agency. Several years after their initial meeting, they got married and moved to Boston.

Peggy Hughes said her membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and personal ties to BYU contributed in part to John Hughes’ decision to accept a position directing a new international media studies program at BYU.

“John brought a lot of prestige to BYUtv. He had regular programming and brought lots of people in, talking about diplomacy and foreign issues,” BYU professor Joel Campbell said. “We were lucky to have him come to Utah.”

From 1991 to 1997, John Hughes brought journalistic talent to campus and sent students on international internships to Jordan, Kenya, Taiwan and Latin America.

An invitation to work at the United Nations as Assistant-Secretary General and Director of Communications necessitated a year-long leave of absence from BYU. 

Almost immediately following his return to campus, Neal A. Maxwell called on John Hughes to make recommendations for the Deseret News. “He wanted John to come up and take a look at the paper and see what they could do to improve,” Peggy said.

Months of research, interviewing and assessment ensued. John Hughes presented his findings, including a recommendation to transition the paper to morning publication, and ended up in the office of President Gordon B. Hinckley. He became the first non-Latter-day Saint to become the editor of Deseret News, Campbell said.

Peggy Hughes remembers the conversation she and John had with the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they offered him a position as Deseret News editor. (Emma Everett)

“That was a heady time,” said Campbell, who reported under Hughes for four years. “His reputation brought a lot of people to the paper. Everybody loved him and respected him.”

John Hughes was remembered for his “gentlemanly approach” in the newsroom, Carter said. “He was humble, and he never made it about himself. He did a lot of work to help the paper transition.”

An anticipated three-year tenure with the Deseret News stretched into a decade, during which time John Hughes promoted investigative journalism and covered the 2002 Winter Olympics. He also maintained a syndicated column with the Christian Science Monitor while in Salt Lake City, Peggy said.

He returned to BYU in 2007, where he remained until his retirement in 2015. “He could’ve gone anywhere and done anything, but I think he really felt the mission of the university,” Carter said.

Emeritus BYU communications professor Dallas Burnett brushed shoulders with John Hughes in the School of Communications. At the time, he said that few members of the faculty fully realized the extent of Hughes’ accomplishments.

“We were eating lunch every month with a giant of a man. In our experience, he was never anything but just one of us, a colleague and a friend,” Burnett said.

John and Peggy Hughes were married for 34 years. During their courtship, John flew from Boston to Washington, D.C. every weekend. (Peggy Hughes)

In retirement, John Hughes wrote several books, including his memoir “Paper Boy to Pulitzer.” He enjoyed reading, traveling and spending time with his family. 

In the final years of his life, Hughes joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Peggy Hughes recalled that his conversion was gradual over the course of their 34-year marriage. “In the end, he talked about how much being a member of the Church meant to him,” she said.

John Hughes is survived by his wife Peggy Hughes and their son Evan, as well as by Mark and Wendy, his children by the late Libby Hughes.

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