Because of his involvement in so many Missoula business enterprises and charitable organizations, Gary Hughes can barely sit down in a coffee shop for 10 minutes without five or six people coming up to shake his hand.
Such was the case at Bernice’s Bakery last Wednesday, as Hughes sat down for an interview. There was a banquet later that night for the Sentinel Kiwanis Club, where Hughes has been a member since 2000, and Hughes knew about half the people in the crowded bakery, greeting all with a smile and a short chat.
“I’m trying to cut back,” Hughes explained with a grin, alluding to his involvement in so many community service organizations.
Hughes, 74, shows no sign of slowing down, however. He’s in great health, and he and his wife Judy recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. He has six kids, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, so he’s never sitting down for long.
Hughes, a Ronan-area native, started his career at the University of Montana in 1966 as a ticket manager for Grizzly Athletics.
“The job had been vacant for three months, and this is June 19, and a football game was coming up,” he said. “My feet were to the fire from the very beginning. But I was lucky enough to land a job, and I just worked my way up the ladder.”
He retired 34 years later as associate athletic director of internal affairs.
He’s seen some incredible changes on the UM campus over the years: He remembers when there was an ice skating rink – even though UM didn’t have a hockey team – and Washington-Grizzly Stadium was built on his watch.
He worked for six different university presidents, five athletic directors and dozens of coaches.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, he was the finals arena manager and sector coordinator for the fencing preliminaries at the Georgia World Congress Center.
Over the years, he was heavily involved in organizing volunteer days for Griz games, when local service organizations would send fill-ins while student workers were away on break.
That had the unintended consequence of turning Missoula into a massive Griz town, a cultural identity that lasts to this day.
"During my tenure at UM, I did something that I was really proud of," he elaborated. "We were always short on ticket-takers during spring break. What do you do during spring break when you're a student? You want to leave.
"So I had an idea of bringing on service clubs. So for 25 to 30 years, we had different service clubs acting as door guards, ticket-takers, ushers and so forth. Which really brought a lot of community businessmen and women to love the Griz. You know, they work those events and go out and talk about those achievements. That was really a prideful thing for me."
In 2000 – after being heavily involved in the long process of transforming the Harry Adams Field House to the new Adams Center – he decided it was time for a big change.
“I retired from UM at age 59, and I’ve got to be honest, I was extremely nervous about what I was going to do,” he recalled. “But my lovely wife Judy wanted me to do that. It was long hours.”
Hughes didn’t want to stay idle, however, and he had many business connections from his time on campus.
He was offered a job at First Security Bank as public relations officer and has been doing that ever since, and he is also involved in building maintenance programs for the bank's nine buildings. The bank is a division of Glacier Bankcorp, the largest company in Montana.
"One of the reasons I have stayed at FSB is Scott Burke, president and CEO of FSB, encourages participation in serving your community," Hughes said.
This year, First Security officers and staff served more than 105 community organizations.
Hughes was a good friend of Hal Fraser, a longtime Missoula banker at First Security and community leader who died unexpectedly of natural causes at age 68 in 2011. They connected over their dedication to community service and building projects that would benefit all of Missoula, such as the development of the Missoula Children’s Theatre and Ogren-Allegiance Park.
“We knew each other and were good friends for 20 years,” he said. “I miss him dearly. I still have a picture of him sitting on my desk. Great man.”
He’s a permanent member of the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame and is also a volunteer for both the Missoula Chamber of Commerce and Destination Missoula.
“I’m still able to do that because of my health, knock on wood,” Hughes explained of his role in the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame. “It’s a springtime activity, but it’s very, very rewarding.”
In 2002, he was the sector coordinator at the Olympic Medals Plaza at the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games, and he has helped direct and produce dozens of Montana High School Association basketball and track and field championships.
Hughes said there is a wave of younger leaders who are poised to oversee the massive changes going on in Missoula.
“It was so great to see the number of young people,” he said of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet last month, where he was given the George Award for community involvement. “The changing of the guard, I guess you would call it. I go to Business After Hours and I’m very active in the Missoula Downtown Association. It’s great to see the young people at those events now. I often think, it’s time for me to go. Because there’s so many great young people coming along now.”
Hughes said he thinks Missoula’s business community is in good hands right now.
“I think the Chamber board is amazing,” he said. “Missoula is a great place to live. I've lived in three other states and I always wanted to come back.”
He also hasn’t seen a period of growth in Missoula like the one that is going on now.
“I see a new building going up on every corner,” he said. “I live out behind Cabela’s, and I built a house there when there was nothing there. And so I know the Missoula Redevelopment Agency is contributing dollars to businesses that are developing that area. I’m not one to oppose growth. I think it makes our city better. I know there are people who hate to see anybody come into Dodge from any other city, but I’m a native and I’ve never been opposed to that.”