Jerry Hughes, former state senator, dies at 85

Jerry Hughes, former state senator, in recent years. (submitted photo)
Jerry Hughes, former state senator, in recent years. (submitted photo)
Jerry Hughes served as president of the Minnesota Senate, having first been elected in 1972. He retired in 1992. (file photo)
Jerry Hughes served as president of the Minnesota Senate, having first been elected in 1972. He retired in 1992. (file photo)

Jerome M. “Jerry” Hughes, known as “the father of Early Childhood/Family Education,” died June 28. He was 85.

Hughes served in the Minnesota Senate starting in 1966 election and continued running undefeated for 26 years. He retired after the 1992 session.

Hughes chaired the education committee starting in 1972 and was elected president of the Senate in 1983; he held those roles until his retirement. He also served on the ethics, elections, finance and rules and administration committees.

Teacher, mentor

Hughes’ parents came from humble beginnings and prized their Irish heritage and the possibilities they and their children could achieve through education.

His mother emigrated from Ireland at 22, and found work as a nanny and maid for a family in St. Paul. She met his father, a young man who’d come to St. Paul to earn his college degree after his upbringing on a Benson farm, at a St. Patrick’s Day dance. Both were from families of 10.

Hughes graduated from Cretin High School in 1947 and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas University, his master’s at the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. at Wayne State University in Detroit.

A longtime Maplewood resident, he was a teacher, counselor and coach at high schools in the metro area, including Johnson in St. Paul.

Mindy Greiling, who served as a member of the Roseville School Board and later as its chair, was elected to the state House of Representatives just after Hughes’ retirement, says he returned to the Capitol to help guide her.

“The year I went to the Legislature, he actually came to the Capitol and sat with me in the education conference committee to help point out what was going on,” she says. “Which I thought was way above and beyond the call.”

The coaching helped launch Greiling on her own 20-year career in the Legislature, during which she established her own reputation as a champion for schools.

However, she emphasizes it was Hughes who began the campaign for early childhood/parent education. “We are the only state in the country to have it, and it’s because of Jerry Hughes. It was his bill. He started it and gathered advocates around it.”

Parents and children, together

ECFE offers not just classes for children from birth to kindergarten ages targeted to their development stages, but companion classes for their parents.

So, while 2 1/2-year-olds tackle age-appropriate learning activities, their parents learn with them and then attend a discussion and learning session of their own with a parent educator.

There, parents of the notoriously challenging “terrific twos” can share their experiences and learn ways to discipline, foster learning at home and help their busy tots get ready for a lifetime of learning.

However, when it was first introduced in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, ECFE met some fierce opposition.

“The idea was to help parents to be better parents,” Greiling says. “People don’t necessarily have their own parents, aunts and uncles around anymore for advice and guidance on those things. They look to other parents, and these ECFE parent educators know common-sense things they’d have found out from their families.

“It can also help with serious matters -- discipline and redirection, ideas for age-appropriate activities and ways to help them learn at home,” Greiling says, noting that the empathy of other parents and strategies from parent educators can help extend parents’ patience and understanding of their babies’ and young children’s development.

“Back when Jerry was involved in pushing for ECFE, he had to be a courageous person,” she explains. “At the time, it was consider social programming -- ‘Parents should be responsible for their kids, and if you had a kid just stay home with ‘em.’ It was controversial then, and to some degree remains controversial. ... Jerry faced some really hostile crowds, so I give him more credit for my work than I take because he laid that difficult groundwork.”

“I think Jerry just was smart enough to realize that if you start early you get better results than if you wait around until they get into school, and that thesis has been proven over and over again,” Greiling says.

“And beyond that, he was just a great guy, a nice guy and was the quintessential educator, mentor and teacher.”

Parents were the advocates

During those early days, as Gay Hendricks worked in community education, she recalls that parents in the ECFE program had no doubt about its value.

“Parents themselves were the spokespeople -- they would go out into the community and would speak very highly of it,” she says.

Hendricks, now retired, says when she became District 622’s community education director in 1986, she was especially thankful Hughes was advocating for the program’s expansion. Otherwise, she might have had to turn hundreds of children and parents away

“ECFE had already started, but what had happened is that monies were being approved in the Legislature to build these programs. That was vital because ... other district’s Community Ed directors and myself could hardly hire people fast enough to meet the demand.”

Not only does ECFE help parents get kids ready for a regular kindergarten experience, it also catches those who may have special needs long before traditional preschool screenings did.

“So Special Education could pair with regular ECFE to meet those needs as well,” she says.

Meanwhile, the parent educators weren’t included in school districts’ bargaining units. “I felt all the ECFE teachers needed to be recognized as licensed teachers, and Jerry helped with that initiative so we could get those teachers on the pay scale.”

Hendricks has tracked Gov. Mark Dayton’s hopes to provide “universal” public education to 4-year-olds, and sees that initiative as tracing back to Hughes.

“I have to believe that the Dayton bill was sparked by the same knowledge that fueled ECFE itself -- that realization that the earlier the child starts to learn and to read, the more they succeed in school and the more likely they are to graduate. It’s a program with universal benefits.”

Inspiration to learn, serve

In a memorial written by State Sen. Chuck Wiger, whose District 43 covers the core of the wider area Hughes represented decades ago, Wiger recalls Hughes’ effect on him personally.

Known as the legislator who dropped out of North High School to actually run away and join the circus, Wiger did later complete his degree and then some, eventually achieving his juris doctorate.

In the early years of his return, while he was still studying for his bachelor’s degree, he served as the youngest school board member ever in the state.

“Jerry encouraged me to get involved with education and other issues at the local level,” he recalls. “I took his advice, and was elected to the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School Board.”

From there, Wiger ran for a state House seat, won it and then his Senate seat.

And, over the years, his mentor, Jerry, was still in contact and still concerned about ECFE.

“Two years ago, Jerry called me about the need to provide additional investment in Early Childhood Family Education programs, citing proven research, and it was an honor to have the Legislature respond positively with bipartisan support,” Wiger recalls.

Hughes was still going strong in early 2015, attending his son John’s induction as president of the National Press Club in Washington D.C. in January. A few weeks later, he was diagnosed with advanced-stage colon cancer.

Hughes was preceded in death by his wife, Audrey, parents Michael and Mae Hughes; sisters Cleo and Patricia and brothers John and Steven.

He is survived by his sister Maxine (Johnson Schimdt) of Arizona and six children, Bernadine (Bill) Leach, Timothy (Diane Young), Kathleen (Glenn) LaChapelle, Rosemarie (Scott) Hughes Wilhelmy, Margaret (John) Towle and John K. (Ellen) as well as 16 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.

Memorials can be made to the Jerome and Audrey Hughes Endowed Scholarship in Graduate Education Fund at the University of St. Thomas.

Holly Wenzel can be reached at and at 651-748-7817.


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