Out of The Woods
A Dean Says Farewell
Jeff McHugh (left) performing with his Bedlam Brothers colleagues Geoff Kooris, Dave McCann, and Mike Kachuba.
Many of us are familiar with Jeff McHugh as banjo player and singer with the Bedlam Brothers or with his earlier group, the Ash Creek String Band. Far more people identify McHugh as the tie-less dean of students at Fairfield Woods Middle School, a position he held for 34 years—or until his retirement this past June.
“I graduated with my granddaughter Maya and it only took her three years,” he says with a broad smile. “It took me 46 years.” The latter was a reference to his career in education, encompassing Bridgeport schools and the past thirty-eight years at Fairfield Woods Middle School.
As disciplinarian, father figure, and counselor, director of school plays, and even sitting in with student musicians on occasion, McHugh, 68, touched the lives of more young people than he can imagine. “One of the big payoffs was getting a letter from a kid who’d been gone for four, five years,” he says. “’Thank you for listening to me,’ he wrote.”
At least four of his Fairfield Woods students have gained national prominence thus far. His memories of each: on singer/songwriter John Mayer: “He had one year in the drama club. One time he and David Wilner snuck into the faculty room to get a soda. ‘That’s it; he’s going to throw us out.’ But I think I bought them a soda instead.”
On tennis great James Blake: “a really nice kid. He got a lunch detention once and thought it was the end of the world.”
On four-time U.S. Olympian hockey star Julie Chu: “We didn’t have ice hockey so Julie played basketball. She was really physically fit and a ferocious competitor.”
(Photo left: Julie Chu returned to Fairfield Woods Middle School, here with Jeff McHugh, and PE teacher Cindy Metz.)
On singer/songwriter Stephen Kellogg: “he was in the plays here. Just a character. I stay in touch with him now as a friend and fellow musician. He sent me a video tribute on my retirement.” (Photo right)
Music has been an integral part of McHugh’s life since his student days at Andrew Warde High School, where he formed a folk music club and a jug band, the Rooster River Boys. He studied for a while with one of the area’s best-known musicians, the late Will Tressler of the Jackson Pike Skifflers.
McHugh majored in Spanish at Dartmouth, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1971, and then launched his career in education in an unlikely setting. “I was teaching Bridgeport high school girls who were pregnant and wanted to continue their education,” he recalls.
He eventually joined the faculty at Black Rock School, but when he learned of an opening at Fairfield Woods—his alma mater—in 1980, he returned to his hometown. For a few years McHugh taught Spanish and math, and then was stunned when he was offered the dean’s position. “I had a beard and long hair. It didn’t fit my persona. I was the protestor!”
He weighed the pros and cons of leaving the classroom, and then accepted the disciplinarian role, albeit with two caveats. “I’ll take it if I don’t have to wear a tie, and I can go back to the classroom if I find the job isn’t for me.”
During summers and on weekends, his musical avocation has taken him to numerous venues throughout the state and beyond with the Bedlam Brothers and Ash Creek String Band. “We’ve shared a stage with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie,” he says.
McHugh also brought his voice and banjo to the folk group at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Fairfield, and he eventually became the ensemble’s leader. His wife, Pat, who plays guitar, also joined the group. (Born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father but raised in neither faith, McHugh converted to Catholicism while at Assumption.)
The McHughs shared their music ministry with Assumption’s Emmaus community, participating in numerous weekend retreats, and they made frequent trips to the Bridgeport Correctional Center, where they performed for inmates at Mass and the bible study program.
McHugh’s retirement party, “Out of the Woods,” held at the Gaelic-American Club during the final week of school, attracted colleagues past and present, including three former principals; friends, and many family members.
“It was very humbling and touching,” he says. “My daughter Molly, a physical instructor at the school, had a large part in putting the entire evening together. I was moved greatly by people who shared this adventure with me.”
FAMILY OF EDUCATORS Jeff’s mother, Helen Gordon McHugh, was Bridgeport’s assistant superintendent of schools and dad Robert McHugh, taught English at Milford High. Oldest child Bridget Grabel is an FLHS guidance counselor, Molly McHugh is a PE instructor at FWMS and Ian McHugh is the Director of User Services in New Canaan.