Originally from Ireland, John McHugh attended community college with the intention of studying engineering, until he was offered a job with the Irish government, which disrupted his engineering aspirations.
“The idea of going to college was to get a job and they were offering me a job,” he said. “So, I took it. If I’d have stayed there, I would’ve had 35 years and could have retired, but what did I know?”
McHugh worked for the government for five years before making what turned out to be a life-changing decision that ultimately landed him as dean of the Lincolnton campus of Gaston College.
“I saw people who had been there (with the government) for 30 years and they were doing the same thing,” he said. “I said to myself, there must be more than this. There must be something else outside the city limits. My mother and father thought that I’d lost my mind. ‘Why would you take a year off from a good government job with pensions and benefits?’”
It was a big gamble for this 23-year-old. There was no guarantee that there’d be a job available for him when he got back, but McHugh wanted to see what else was out there. He zigzagged from one end of the world to the other. He went anywhere and everywhere that he had a friend or relative. He saw Scotland, England, Wales, France, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.
“I had a great time. This was the life, speedboats and water skiing” he said. “I had a backpack and did it as cheap as I could.”
Then McHugh ended up in America and met his future wife in New York.
“I tried to convince her to go back to Ireland with me,” he said. “We went for a visit in August and it was the hottest day in three years – 70 degrees. We were having a heat wave and it was the end of the world. Couldn’t find a fan anywhere. She told me, ‘I can’t live here, I’ll freeze. If it’s 70 in the summertime, what’s it like in the winter?’ So, we came back and lived in New York for a little bit.”
The company that his wife worked for transferred her to Gastonia in 1988. McHugh tried working construction, but there wasn’t much money in that trade at the time, so he decided to start up his own building and maintenance company. The “Gaston Gazette” took an interest in this Irish entrepreneur and did a story on him which helped launch his business. John McLaughlin, then vice president of Vermont American, saw the story and asked him to do some work on his building.
“This was before the new 321 was built and I had no idea where I was going,” McHugh said. “I thought, ‘man this is up here in the boondocks.’”
McLaughlin gave McHugh a huge break, paving his way to a future that McHugh had no way of foreknowing.
“Business was great but here’s what I could see coming,” he said. “The number one reason people contracted with me is the back injuries that happen with their own employees. There’s a high number of back injuries in people that do custodial work. Anytime that they can shift the liability over to me and my employees, they’d do it.”
He ran that company for 14 years, but back issues plagued him, so he decided to go back to school to get an education.
“I went to Gaston College to talk to a counselor,” he said. “I told her that I wanted to start to take some classes. She said, ‘okay, do you think you can handle one (credit) hour?’ back then they were on the quarter system. I’m thinking, in my mind, one hour for 12 weeks, that’s just minutes a day. I had never heard the term ‘credit hours’ before. We don’t have credit hours in Ireland, it’s a totally different system. I said, ‘yea, I can handle that.’ She said, ‘what about three hours?’ I’m thinking, ‘three hours for 12 weeks, that’s nothing.’ So, I signed up for 12 hours.”
McHugh soon discovered he made a big mistake and had taken on a course-full load. At that time, his wife was working, they had a young daughter and he was still running his business, so it was a struggle. It took him six years to get a two-year degree. With the associates degree in hand, he transferred to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and thought he was going to continue on the engineering path but decided that he didn’t really want to do that. The counselor he saw suggested that with all the math classes he’d taken, maybe he wanted to teach math.
“They put me in a double major of mathematics and education,” he said. “I graduated in 2000 and started teaching at Gaston County Schools and loved it. I went to work at a good school with a good principal. It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
After a few years of “teaching his heart out,” which resulted in his students consistently receiving good test scores, McHugh was promoted to the central office to help design a program that would help other students with their math tests. He stayed there for two years, but really missed teaching.
“It’s one thing when you do it yourself,” he said. “it’s hard to get, what was at that time, 200 math teachers to try to buy into the philosophy that I had which was, you just teach it. If they’ve got questions, you keep going over it again and again.”
When a full-time job came available teaching at Gaston College, McHugh applied for it and was hired. He also enrolled in Gardner-Webb University to get a master’s degree. In time, McHugh was promoted to the developmental education department chair, but still taught in the classroom.
“After three and a half years, I was sort of wondering, ‘is there something else,’” he said. “So, I started the Gardner-Webb doctoral program. A job came open in Greensboro, but my wife didn’t want to move.”
Right about that time (2011), Rosalind Welder had announced her retirement as dean of the Gaston College Lincolnton Campus and I was fortunate to get the job,” he said. “I love being dean of the campus, I’ve got great students, but I still miss teaching in the classroom. When I look back on it, that’s probably the time that I felt like I was really contributing because I was making a difference for those people who hated math.”
One of the questions that McHugh said he got a lot was, “why do I need to study math? I’ll never use it again.” He’d tell them that they were right, that 95% of what he taught he never used, but what he does use is attention to detail, ability to learn quickly and recall accurately and logical and problem-solving skills.
“I like helping students,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for. When I make a decision, I try to decide what’s best for the student.”
Throughout his time at Gaston College, McHugh has privately helped students by providing life-changing items that they couldn’t afford themselves. He’s in the process now of starting a clothing bank for students who need clothing for an interview.
“For me it’s not just about what you learn in a class,” he said. “It’s to help these young people and some of them don’t have anything. The college has some money available, but we can’t help everybody. For some of these young people, $250 might be the difference between them staying in school and finishing or not.”
Transportation and day care are two issues that some students struggle with McHugh added.
He insists that he’s picked up a southern accent and when he goes back home to Ireland, he gets teased, but here in North Carolina, he still gets the age-old question, “you’re not from around here are you?”
Relocation is pretty much out of the question now for McHugh. He lost his first wife to cancer and remarried a woman born and raised in Gastonia, and she has no intention of moving away from the area.
“If you had told me back in 1980 that in 2020, I’d be living in Gastonia, North Carolina and dean of the Lincolnton campus, I would have never believed you,” he said. “You might as well have told me I’d be living in a tent on the moon. The two would have made about the same amount of sense. ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,’ and ‘I took the one less travelled.’”