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Jeff McHugh: The Dean Without a Tie

McHugh puts aside his banjo each school day to work with -- and occasionally discipline -- students at Fairfield Woods.

If you’ve seen Jeff McHugh strumming his banjo on stage with the Ash Creek String Band or with his new group, the Bedlam Brothers, chances are you’d be hard-pressed to guess his day job.

The man with the long hair, casual attire, and stage presence is employed as the dean of students at . He has served in this demanding role for more than a quarter century, a tenure that surprises even him.

McHugh chuckles as he recalls when the position was offered to him in the fall of 1984. "Me? I was kinda surprised," he says. "I had a beard and long hair. It didn’t fit my persona. I was the protester…"

He weighed the pros and cons of leaving the classroom -- he was teaching Spanish and math -- to become the school’s disciplinarian. Finally, he accepted, but with two caveats.

"I’ll take it if I don’t have to wear a tie," he said, "and if I can get back in the classroom if I find the job isn’t for me."

The job, sans tie, has fit him to a T. People will tell you that McHugh has touched the lives of thousands of Fairfield Woods students through the years. As disciplinarian, as father figure, as director of school plays, even sitting in with school musicians on occasion to perform at Fairfield Woods events.

"One of the big payoffs (to being dean of students) is getting a letter from a kid who’s been gone four, five years," he says. "'Thank you for listening to me,' they write."

McHugh is pleased that a Fairfield Woods graduate named Stephen Kellogg has gained a measure of fame as the leader of the touring band, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. "I stay in touch with him now as a friend and fellow musician." The Sixers recently released their fifth album, "Gift Horse."

Music has been an integral part of McHugh’s life since his days at . While others opted to play guitar, the banjo became his instrument of choice and he studied for a while with one of the area’s best-known musicians, of the Jackson Pike Skifflers. The band includes members from Fairfield, Monroe, New Fairfield; and guest appearances with musicians from Norwalk, Redding, and Hamden.

At Warde, McHugh formed a jug band, the Rooster River Boys.

McHugh was a Spanish major at Dartmouth, earned a bachelor's degree in 1971, and then entered teaching in an unlikely setting. "I was teaching high school girls who were pregnant and wanted to continue their education," he says. That was in Bridgeport.

He soon joined the faculty at the Park City’s Black Rock School, but when he learned of an opening at Fairfield Woods -- his alma mater -- in 1980, he returned to his hometown. He’s been there, as teacher and dean, ever since.

His musical vocation has taken him in other directions on weekends and on non-school days. With the Ash Creek String Band, he has performed at myriad venues throughout the state and elsewhere. “We’ve shared a stage with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie,” he noted.

In 1978, McHugh joined the folk group at in Fairfield, and eventually became the group’s leader. Born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father but raised in neither faith, he converted to Catholicism while at Assumption.

His wife, Pat, learned guitar shortly after their marriage, and she too became a member of the Assumption folk group. Later, they took their music ministry to the Bridgeport Correctional Center, the high-security facility on North Avenue, where they assisted the Rev. Bill Sangiovanni at Wednesday evening Mass and Tuesday Bible study.

Their friendship with Father Bill has endured, and now, joined by their granddaughters Maya and Aleysha Henry, and long-time friend Susan Costa, they play at one of his Sunday Masses each month at .

How much longer does McHugh intend to continue at Fairfield Woods?

“My goal is to stay here until Aleysha is in the eighth grade and Maya is a sixth grader,” he says, which equates to several more years as the dean without a tie.

Milton Jacoby November 02, 2011 at 03:27 PM
What a fantastic guy!!! Milt Jacoby
Caitlin Mazzola (Editor) November 02, 2011 at 04:22 PM
We've got some Facebook fans sharing their memories of Mr. McHugh: Caraly Benak: Loved playing on his basketball team! Still love him 20 years later! Rich Pittera: best memory, he would take the mic at lunch to shush us. then talk without the mic.
Jennifer Hochberg November 02, 2011 at 05:42 PM
I remember Mr. McHugh from my days @ Fairfield Woods (FWMS '89)! Wonderful article! Also, his son Ian was in my graduating class of Fairfield High, 1993.
EMTD November 04, 2011 at 02:47 AM
I've known Jeff and Pat for 32 years and they truly are an amazing couple who have been a positive influence on my life. They helped me to navigate through some rough waters during my teen years. Jeff kindly, yet firmly guided my now adult daughter through FWMS. Jeff is now inspiring my son who is currently an 8th grader at FWMS. Pass It On!
Holly Kotos November 08, 2011 at 10:26 PM
Was just telling one of my former students who is a newbee at Fairfield Woods that Mr. McHugh was one of the most beloved teachers at Black Rock School. On our facebook page, everyone has been sharing memories. I can say he was a huge inspiration for me becoming a teacher at BRS and how to inspire my own kids in education. Nobody can imagine all the kids this man has influenced, in many cases when there was nobody else to do the job.

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