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The Hope for Youth and Families tutoring program follows in the foot steps of Northeast Educational Services,  a community service program that provided student tutors to the under-served youth in Springfield, founded by Robert M. Hughes in 1963.

Bob Hughes

Bob Hughes – A Vision of Hope and Promise

 

In the center of Massachusetts but referred to as Western Mass, alongside the Connecticut River at its intersection with the Westfield River (back then known as the Agawam River) sits Springfield.  It was settled in 1636 as an outpost to trade furs with the Indians when most of the state was frontier. Located at the cross-roads of New England during colonial times, it sat on the land route known as the Bay Path that connected Boston to New York and the colonies further south.  It became even more central when the railroads came through. Over the years it grew and prospered and by 1900s, it was a thriving city.

 

The people of Springfield knew how to make things, and they were good at it.  During the American Revolution, they made the rifles that Washington’s army used to win our independence.  They made the first lathe for interchangeable parts that propelled them to become, by the middle of the century, one of the great early manufacturing centers of our country.  They made the first American gas-powered automobile. They made guns, and tools, motorcycles and ice skates, handcuffs and board games, horse liniment and car tires and the first America dictionary. The Springfield Armory was the home of the Springfield rifle and later the M1 of World War II fame. Its prosperity could be seen in the glorious Victorian mansions where the Springfield elite made their homes.

 

Around the turn of the 20th century, with the promise of employment and security, it became the destination of great waves of immigration – Poles, Italians, Irish and Eastern European Jews flocked to Springfield for the promise of a better life. Each group established its own neighborhood with its own churches or temples. Springfield was called the “City of Homes” because, unlike most growing American cities, the folks that came to Springfield were able to prosper enough to buy homes instead of rent tenements. Springfield was a place filled with hope and promise.

 

Things started to change after the Second World War. The Armory was no longer needed and eventually closed, laying off thousands of workers. The large manufacturing businesses moved south, leaving vast empty factories built during an earlier time that were now obsolete and unneeded; and still more unemployment.

 

The next generation of newcomers were African Americans, who found that the opportunities for good jobs open to the previous waves of newcomers was no longer there. Hope and promise were in short supply.

 

In the fall of 1963, I had just returned to Springfield from college.  Springfield was sad and tired, and the general outlook was depressing.  It was filled with old, obsolete buildings that were of little use to anyone. That was the Springfield I had come back to.  I was fascinated by the old and obsolete.  In my spare time, I loved to walk the city and explore.  I would find old, mostly useless buildings filled with stores selling mostly discarded used furniture that nobody wanted -- things that at one time were the pride of the folks that bought them years back that now were unwanted and should probably have been thrown out, except that the space they took up was in so little demand that keeping them was cheap enough to be justified.

On just such a walk, I passed an open storefront in a vacant building on Worthington Street where there appeared to be lots of activity.  Standing outside and looking in, I saw a slight, animated Black man who immediately invited

me in. He was a disabled Korean War Vet who had recently moved down from Putney, Vermont, and was in the process of creating something new and exciting.  His excitement was contagious. 

 

Bob Hughes was filled with hope and promise. He had identified a need in the community for African American children from disadvantaged families who were not doing well, and needed help and encouragement in their early years of school. He recognized a resource in the many college students from the nearby colleges in the area who could tutor and mentor these young African American students as they entered the school system of Springfield.  He saw wasted minds that, with just a little extra attention and help, could be awakened to the joy of learning and to the opportunities that a good education could offer.  All that was needed to make it happen was someone to coordinate the effort and provide a place for this magic to happen. And Bob was confident that he saw a way to make it happen. He explained his vision in a compelling way that made me want to immediately get involved and help.

Bob Hughes

At first, he was treated with suspicion by the Springfield African American community.  “Who was this guy who dropped in from nowhere, and was going to save our children?”  He was an outsider, and no one knew anything about him. Early on I was approached by an African American police detective who had taken it upon himself to investigate Bob.  “What do you know about this guy?  What’s his angle?  He has to have an angle.  No one is that good,” he said.  Bob Hughes was.  He was totally unselfish and never one to take credit. His only angle was that he wanted to help the youth of Springfield.  He was the real deal, and that detective later became one of Bob’s greatest fans. One exception was Ben Swan, a local politician and civil rights leader active in the NAACP who welcomed and encouraged Bob.

Bob came into town knowing no one.  I introduced him to everyone I knew that I thought might be interested in helping.  And Bob encouraged each new person that he met to introduced him to everyone they thought might help.  Bob, more than any other person I ever met, knew how to network. Pretty soon it seemed like there wasn’t anyone in Springfield that Bob didn’t know.

 

Bob came into town knowing no one.  I introduced him to everyone I knew that I thought might be interested in helping.  And Bob encouraged each new person that he met to introduced him to everyone they thought might help.  Bob, more than any other person I ever met, knew how to network. Pretty soon it seemed like there wasn’t anyone in Springfield that Bob didn’t know.

 

Bob knew how to explain his vision in a compelling way. He was one of those people that understood how to reach out to people and get them to share his vision.  He was a Black pied piper, with a worthwhile goal that we all could buy into. He had found a need in a city that desperately needed his hope and promise. And here he was, ready to deliver.  How could anybody who heard his story not want to help?

 

He called his new creation Northern Educational Services [6], NES for short. He had no money to buy new things.  All that old used furniture was about to find a new life. We collected discarded furniture, whatever we could use, and put it to use at NES. Bob wanted to create a space that would serve as a classroom where young African American students could get tutoring and mentoring to help them on their journey to become successful students and successful adults.  We built desks from cinder blocks and discarded doors, like I had learned to do at college. The goal was not to build up a fancy enterprise but to build up young lives.

 

This center was the beginning of NES and the inspiration for thousands of students to get the tutorial help they needed to do well in school. Bob organized volunteers to do the tutoring. Using personal funds from his Veteran's Disability Pension, he put up his own money to support the organization with some help from participating families.

 

Bob believed that you must always keep trying and never take no for an answer. He took his desire to see young people improve their lives and shared that hope with friends and area educators, who helped him realize his dream.In the early days of NES, Bob organized fundraisers to raise money for the programs serving Springfield's African American community. With Bob's influence, people from all backgrounds participated in various fundraisers such as the art auction. Bob befriended Leonard Baskin, internationally-known Northampton artist, who donated many of his works to the fundraisers. With support from private donors and Bob’s leadership, NES grew to seven centers around the city. [2]

Long range, he felt that if he could build a proof-of-concept and demonstrate that his vision was effective and sustainable,

Bob Hughes

the local government would eventually take on the task.  Bob would build a better chance before the concept of “A Better Chance” existed. Like the theme of the movie, The Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” This was Bob’s dream.

 

Let me take a moment and give you a little biographical background on Bob. Robert M.  Hughes was born in in 1930 in Houston, Texas.  He was the son of Sadie Hawkins and Pluria Hughes.

 

Bob spent his school years in San Antonio, Texas, where he attended the Paul Lawrence Dunbar School and later graduated from Phyllis Wheatley High School. Following high school graduation, he moved from Texas to Berkeley, California for college study and joined the U.S. Air Force Reserves. In 1950, he was called for active military duty and served during the Korean War. Due to an eye injury and the beginnings of his battle with multiple sclerosis, he was later honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force as a disabled veteran. [3]

 

After being discharged from the Air Force, Bob made his way to New York City to visit his famous cousin, the poet Langston Hughes. While there, Langston encouraged him to finish his college studies at McGill University in Canada. He took Langston's advice, but while driving north, stopped briefly in Putney, Vermont, and while there happened to meet Walter Hendricks, the president of Windham College, who convinced him to abandon his trip to Canada and enroll at Windham.Bob accepted the invitation and pursued his college study in Putney, Vermont. [4]

 

In 1960, he received a B.F.A. degree from Windham College with a major in art history and arts management and became an Administrative Assistant at the Putney School, a private secondary school near the college. It was there that he met Amy Stoddard, his future wife and the love of his life. He left the Putney School in 1962 to move first to Hartford, Connecticut and soon after to Springfield, with plans to get involved in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. [5]

 

Bob worked briefly in Connecticut for Hartford's North End Community Action Project but saw a greater need in Springfield. He wanted to make a contribution to the community. In light of the growing failing scores of African American children in the Springfield schools, he saw the need to help them to stay in school, graduate and go on to college.

 

The young students who came to NES were greatly impacted by the experiences as well as Bob's contagious enthusiasm and vision. Gregory Drew, one of NES's first students, said, "I had a hard time with my studies, but NES helped me get through it and stay on track. It was a wonderful program. In 1965, Bob arranged for some of us to spend the summer in Northampton and experience life outside of Springfield. …We had a great summer of learning and fun…These experiences provided by NES gave me a great foundation for life.”

 

Sylvia Barksdale Wilson, who was also one of NES's first students, participated in the summer programs in Northampton as well and eventually became a tutor at NES. "I enjoyed being at the Green Mountain Camp for Girls, and living with a family in Northampton…. Thanks to Bob, a great mentor, I went to Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from American International College with a degree in nursing. Bob opened up the world to you by giving you different experiences and exposure to people in other communities. We even visited the Putney School in Vermont."

 

After four years, when Bob saw that his work was done and it was time to pass the baton on to someone else, he left NES to pursue other ventures. Bob went on to do many other worthwhile and note-worthy things, always in the service of helping people.But for me, his drive, his enthusiasm and his vision in creating NES represents the best of what any man can do for his community. Bob was a true gift to Springfield, and particularly to the young disadvantaged youth of the African American community. He was an honest to goodness hero.

 

John Sloane Dickey, the President of Dartmouth College, famously said, “The world’s problems are our problems. There is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”  Bob was just the sort of person that Dickey had in mind. 

 

I write this now, when the world seems to have lost its way, to remind folks that men like Bob Hughes once existed, and I am sure still do exist, if we can but find them. He was a role model to all of us.  Robert M. Hughes “touched the world with his compassion, changed the city of Springfield, Massachusetts with his vision, and inspired people around the globe to find success. Despite the obstacles he faced over the course of his life, he fought racism and discrimination and focused on his abilities rather than his disabilities.  Thanks to him, thousands of lives around the world have been changed for the better.” [6]

 

“There is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”

 

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Awards and Recognition honoring Bob Hughes

1965 - Man of the Year recognition by Springfield Jaycees.

1965 - Honored by the Springfield Urban League for outstanding service in human relations and education.

1995 - Korean War Veteran Awardee of the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust Task Force for his community service.

1987 - Eye on the Prize Award given by WGBY Channel 57 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Posthumous African Hall Steering Committee Award for leadership.

1999 - Honored by naming the Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter Public School after him.

 

References

 

[1] The current successor to Northern Education Services is the Hope for Youth and Families Foundation, https://www.hyff.org/.

 

[2], [3], [4], [5} & [6] Inspiring Success by Janine and Tom Fondon and Amy Hughes, Unityfirst.com

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