AHOSKIE – He has battled wildfires from coast to coast; walked behind a plow with the heat and smoke of a blaze scorching his eyebrows and filling his nostrils; and spent years handing out wise advice to the landowners of how to properly manage their timber.
But through it all, Michael Hughes admits he never grew tired of his job.
Hughes retired on Dec. 30 with 30 years of service to the North Carolina Forest Service. He spent the majority of that time as the Hertford County Forest Ranger.
On New Year’s Eve, family, friends and career associates of Hughes spent time praising his work at a dinner event held at the Ahoskie Kiwanis Club building.
On behalf of the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department, Danny Casper presented Hughes with a plaque of appreciation for his 30 years of work.
“I’ve had the opportunity to be in the fire department for 24 years and when you ask a firefighter why he or she volunteers for that type of service, they’ll tell you they want to help their community and become a part of a brotherhood,” Casper remarked. “When you meet people like Michael and admire their work, then I’m proud to call him my brother.
“He’s a very classy man who has done his job well for all these years,” Casper continued. “I’m happy for him as he now has the chance to do in life what he wants to do. I wish him a happy retirement.”
Mark Jones, a longtime friend of Hughes and served as the best man at his wedding, said he and Michael enjoyed some great times together over the years.
“He taught me how to hunt and fish,” Jones said.
Jones did recall a funny story about a particular duck hunt off Beaver Dam Road.
“I shot a duck and when I went to retrieve it I fell in a deep hole,” he remembered. “I was soaking wet and it was about 30 degrees that day. What I remember the most was that Michael, and you must know he was mighty particular over his truck, made me ride in the back all the way home.”
Chris Smith, who once served as the Assistant Forest Ranger under Hughes before accepting a position as Hertford County’s Director of Emergency Management, said he learned many valuable life and professional lessons from his mentor.
“Michael is a pretty laid back guy; he doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but when you’re working at a fire scene he’s the guy you want to have your back,” Smith shared.
“Michael, I appreciate all the support you’ve given me throughout my career,” Smith continued. “You are an outstanding supervisor. And since you don’t live that far down the road from me, I don’t have to say good-bye; I’ll just say I hope you enjoy your well deserved retirement.”
Another co-worker, Chuck Munford (equipment operator for the Hertford County office of the NC Forest Service) also had high praise for his now retired boss.
“Michael is a very professional gentleman and has served our county and our state very well,” Munford noted. “There’s a lot of people who respect Michael and look up to him…I’m one of them.”
Munford recalled the day he was hired and he and Hughes made the trip to the NCFS District Headquarters in Elizabeth City.
“On the ride there he told me what he expected of me as an employee for him,” Munford said. “In the same breath he asked me what I expected from him as a supervisor. That’s a question a lot of bosses do not ask.”
One attribute that Munford said he ranks above all when it came to Hughes it that his former boss fed everyone from the same spoon.
“He didn’t treat any one person differently,” he stressed. “He was the type of boss that when you got home and found a water pipe leaking in your yard, he would come and kneel down beside you in the mud and help fix it.
“He’s the type of boss that can say a thousand words and not open his mouth….his actions speak for him,” Munford added. He’s the type of boss that will be missed. He’s a man that I’ll forever call my friend.”
Jason Odom, the former Assistant Forest Ranger who moves into Hughes’ seat upon retirement, said he was grateful to Hughes for hiring him.
“It’s been a true pleasure to work with you, Michael,” Odom said. “You treat us as equals and you lead by example. You were a great mentor to me. I listened to what you told me and I feel what I learned will help me in slipping into your chair.
“You’ll be missed,” Odom added. “I wish you continued prosperity with your retirement.”
Jack Brinkley, a family friend, said he recalled when Hughes was named as Hertford County Forest Ranger.
“I was so proud when I heard that news years ago,” Brinkley remarked.
Greg Hughes, a cousin who just retired from the Hertford County office of Soil & Water Conservation, said he and Michael grew up together and graduated high school together.
“We’ve been a team for a long time….he with the Forest Service and me with Soil and Water,” Greg stated. “I’ve enjoyed working with him.”
On a lighter note, and a jab at his cousin, Greg Hughes said, “They talked about how hard he worked and was ready for retirement. Well, I guess he is because he’s been practicing for it for 30 years.”
On hand to celebrate the retirement were members of Michael Hughes immediate family: wife, Ellen; son, Tyler; and daughter, Traci.
“They sacrificed so much during my career,” Hughes stressed. “We would go out to dinner and we all rode there as a family and in the midst of the meal, my pager goes off (to respond to a fire). What do you do? Well we either all pile back in the car and rush back or I leave them there and they have to find a way home.
“I have left my wife at Food Lion with a basket full of groceries and she had to figure out how to get home; and she did,” he added. “My job forced me to either be away from home and interrupt family life. Thank ya’ll for putting up with that, but now that’s over.”
Hughes recalled having to work on all major holidays….Christmas, New Year’s Day, July 4th and Thanksgiving.
He also recalled how he fell head over heels in love with becoming a Forest Ranger and a firefighter.
“(Former Hertford County Ranger) Cullen Swain once lived across the road from my family when I was growing up,” Hughes said. “He got me interested in forestry and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. There’s not many people who can say if you find a job you love to do, then you’ll never work a day in your life. I actually had that job. I never minded getting up every morning and going to work.”
That work took Hughes all across the United States fighting wildfires. He recalled trips to Texas, Florida, Idaho, Nevada, California, and Washington State.
“I’ve met people and seen things I never would otherwise if it hadn’t have been for this job,” he said.
He also had high praise for his staff.
“I’ve always been blessed to have the guys I had over the years; we worked great as a team,” Hughes said.
In closing, he gave his wife a special gift…..a plaque that read: “Retirement, twice as much husband for half as much money.”
“I do appreciate ya’ll coming out tonight and spending this time. God bless you all,” Hughes concluded.
And with that, the curtain fell on Hughes’ professional career. Now, the citizens of Hertford County will have to look elsewhere to find Smokey the Bear.