Colleagues wonder what to do without man who made UM athletics work

Gary Hughes won't go to work tomorrow at the University of Montana, and things will still get done.

Or will they?

"I can't believe people won't be calling him at home," assistant athletic director Bill Schwanke said. "He has a wealth of knowledge and experience that everybody in the athletic department ends up drawing on."

For 34 years, Hughes has managed tickets, food service, stadiums, arenas and people in UM athletics. He retires Wednesday, and the fact that his loss has everyone so worried may be the best tribute of all.

"I don't think 'a little bit scary' would describe it," said Steve Hackney, who's in his 18th year as athletic equipment manager. "You don't replace 34 years of experience and a man with the work ethic Gary has with a new person. In my opinion it would take two or three people to replace him."

"I hate the fact that he's leaving," said Dave Guffey, director of sports media relations for 22 years. "It's not a good day for the Griz."

Hughes' title is assistant athletic director of internal affairs, which does him poor justice.

Since his first day on the job - June 19, 1966 - he has been ticket manager, field house director and facilities director. Hughes has overseen the computerization of tickets to Grizzly and Lady Griz games and the constructions and renovations of any number of athletic facilities.

He has shoveled snow off the football field and handed out vests to gate guards and ticket takers. He has unlocked the doors and, many hours later, locked them again.

He's also been the memo man, a devout Christian, the father figure of the athletic department, the one who can walk into an empty field house and know instinctively which fan isn't working.

"Gary's just a wonderfully compassionate man. I'm not sure how he's done what he's done so long and kept his sanity," athletic director Wayne Hogan said.

Hughes' last big project tested that sanity. Transforming the Adams Field House of old to the new Adams Center has been his most challenging undertaking, and he said it's no coincidence he chose to retire when it was finished.

"I knew it was the last big project athletics would do and the university would do with athletics," he said. "The (football) stadium might be expanded at some point but not for awhile."

"Gary baby-sat that thing 24 hours a day," Hogan said. "He's been in every meeting, spent countless hours with architects even before this thing got off the ground. During the process he rode herd on everything - contractors, subcontractors, architects, our own building and planning people on campus. It was a very, very difficult project and he was passionate about it. You almost sensed with him it was his building."

"I guess the thing that strikes me most about Gary is he handles pressure, a lot of pressure, about as calmly as anybody I've ever been around," Schwanke said. "He has a very strong faith, and I think that helps him maintain his cool when a lot of people would lose it."

A Ronan native, Hughes graduated from the Missoula Business College with an associate degree in accounting. His first job was night auditor at the Florence Hotel, but he soon moved on to higher paying work at Van Evans Products.

"I hated the mill so bad I took a cut in pay to come to the university," Hughes said.

It was his last change of jobs in more than a third of a century. He and wife Judy have raised six kids in Missoula while Gary ran things at UM and Judy operated a day-care that's in its 32nd year.

"Our agreement was she would retire when I did, but she's reneging on that," Hughes said with a laugh.

Still, they'll be off next week to Engand and Ireland. They have friends in each country. Later in the summer there'll be trips to California and to Texas. Hughes, who's four years short of social security age, said he'll go to work next fall, though he's not sure where.

And he'll always have the echoes.

"Good times? My land, I've had so many," he said. "When I first came to the university, basketball was down, football was down. The Swarthout era and those Camellia Bowls (1969 and '70) were just wonderful times.

"The Heathcote era, how could you not enjoy that? The building was rocking, those were the Zoo years."

Women's sports took hold in the late 1970s.

"In the very beginning we'd get 50 to 100 fans, and it just grew and grew and grew," Hughes said.

Don Read's football era. "I still play the national championship radio tape now and then. You can actually hear Andy (Larson) kick the ball.

Naseby Rhinehart and Dennis Murphy, the only two athletic trainers in school history. Road trips to distance stadiums and arenas, where Hughes handled ticketing for an "amazing" number of displaced Grizzly fans.

Working with long-time Missoula high school activities director Frank McElwain on "zillions" of prep events.

"So many memories," Hughes said. "I'll miss the seniors. By the time the kids go through four or five years, you know them very well. They're like your own children."

If you're interested

A public reception in honor of Gary Hughes will be held Wednesday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the Sky Club in Adams Center. A multi-media painting by local artist Stan Hughes, entitled "Gary" and presented at a staff reception on Tuesday, will be on display.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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