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.