There are still a few things for Steve McHugh to pack up in his office in the Missoula County Public Schools Administration Building on South Sixth Street West.
His blue floral couch, which has followed him from office to office, and the photos of his family and artwork by his now-adult children that grace the walls and bookcases, will be the last things to go when McHugh turns off the lights for the final time on Dec. 27.
When he leaves that day, McHugh will end a 38-year career as a local educator and his most recent job as the district’s human resources director and labor negotiator.
“It just doesn’t feel real that after 38 1/2 years I’m retiring,” McHugh said on Monday. “Where has the time gone? It’s just buzzed by.”
McHugh, 61, began his career as a teacher when he was 22 years old.
Except for three years in Frenchtown’s K-8 school, McHugh has spent his entire career within MCPS.
Communication arts, math and science are the topics he taught through the years at Whittier, Franklin, Roosevelt and Washington schools.
After 16 years in the classroom, McHugh became principal of Hawthorne Elementary School, where he served 16 years before stepping into his current position as the district’s human resources director, where he has served for the past three and a half years.
“He really knows the ins and outs of this district and we are losing a lot of institutional memory when he leaves,” said Melanie Charlson, president of the Missoula Education Association, which represents the teachers union.
Describing him as the consummate professional, Charlson praised McHugh for his collaborative and empathetic negotiating style.
“He was always willing to listen, and he was definitely a strong advocate for the humanistic side of the teaching business,” she said. “When we worked in negotiations, we never had any shouting matches, we were able to work quite well together with budgets and stressful times.
“He has a great sense of humor and knows how to diffuse a tense situation.”
For certain, with 2,000 employees in the district, the job as human resources director, labor negotiator and the district’s health insurance point person has been challenging but always interesting, McHugh said.
“This position is really all about the well-being of employees,” McHugh said. “And it’s been an honor to serve them.”
Moreover, being involved with a district that is dedicated to excellence has been an honor, McHugh said.
He had a front-row seat when the district evolved from K-8 schools to a reconfigured K-5 elementary, 6-8 middle and 9-12 high schools.
“It is interesting to look back on that,” McHugh said. “I think it gave kids some great opportunities in areas like fine arts and industrial arts in the middle schools.”
In the early 1980s, McHugh was one of the first teachers in the district to have a computer in his classroom.
Thanks to an education grant, McHugh had an Apple II computer that he used to teach students and his colleagues how to make stick figures and line drawings on a graphics program called Logo.
“That was cutting edge,” McHugh said, laughing. “Things have changed so much since, which is good, because we have to change in education to provide our kids the tools to do well in society.
“I look at my grandson, and he’s 13 months old. He sees me using my iPad and he already gets the idea that you click on something to make things move.”
McHugh applauds the district’s innovative 21st century education initiatives, and hopes the greater Missoula community will continue to support the district’s direction.
Missoula residents have always understood the importance of providing quality public education, McHugh said.
“When we start looking at test scores of how American students compare to international student scores, we don’t do so well,” he said. “But when we look at how Missoula students compare, we should all be proud, because our students do really well.
“Our kids perform in the top 10 in subjects like science and math education – and that’s pretty neat, and that’s because of community support for our schools.”
As his final days with the district wind down, McHugh is mentoring his replacement, Mark Thane.
It’s a bittersweet hand-off, Thane said.
“I was a student teacher in Steve’s classroom at Franklin in 1980, so we go way back,” Thane said. “He mentored me as a student teacher, and then we both taught in the district, and then both served as principals at the same time.
“It’s only fitting that he mentors me over these last couple of weeks, as I am preparing to take over as human resources director.”
Thane said he has long admired McHugh’s dedication to the job – all of them – and in particular, admired McHugh’s commitment to students.
Thane said he will miss McHugh’s level-headedness and his steady presence in unravelling district problems and conflicts.
“When times are difficult or stressful, you could count on Steve to provide clear perspective and help people realize what is important and to focus on that,” Thane said.
McHugh said he will miss the partnerships he’s formed with people in the district, and although he’s enjoyed working in administration, his heart is with those earlier days.
“I’m a teacher, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
The transition to retirement begins in January with his wife, Mary.
Together, the couple will explore the Southwest for a couple of weeks, find some sunshine and play some golf courses.
The adventure will give him time to think about where to put that blue floral couch.
It got the most use when McHugh served as Hawthorne’s principal, and it became the safe place for youngsters to tell him what was going on in their lives when they were called to his office.
“There’s a lot of stories that couch could tell,” McHugh said. “It’s the place where a lot of kids could come down and find comfort.
“It’s a sacred item. It’s going with me.”