ITEM PHOTO BY SPENSER HASAK
Jim Hughes sits among mounds of papers and boxes at his insurance agency in Swampscott.
SWAMPSCOTT — It wasn’t that long ago that Jim Hughes, in a profile in 01907 magazine, was somewhat dismissive of the prospect of retiring, despite the fact that he had been running his own insurance business for 55 years at the time.
When Hughes walked out of his Burrill Street office May 30 for the last time, however, it wasn’t because he had an epiphany in the interim. He simply felt it was time to call it a career.
“We had a good run. The hardest part for any of us is to decide it is time,” said Hughes, 85, the proprietor of James L. Hughes Insurance for 57 years. “Who knows? I hope I’m right.”
When it comes to providing hands-on customer service, Hughes did it the right way since he hung a shingle in 1960.
To say Hughes never embraced modern technology would be an understatement. He once begrudgingly admitted owning a cell phone, but proudly insisted he didn’t even know the number. He managed to run a business in the Internet age without having a web site. E-mail? Not a chance.
“I would rather pick up the phone (landline, of course) and talk to people,” he said. “All the technology is great – until you run into a problem.”
You likely couldn’t survive as a new business with such an anti-technology bent, but Hughes was well established by the time the World Wide Web launched. He had about 450 clients when he closed the door, after agreeing to sell his business to Wood & Associates in Lynn.
Hughes had only two full-time assistants in almost six decades: Jeanne (Connelly) Quealy, who worked for him for more than two decades, and Tina Brown, who started with him in 1985 and walked out the door with him last week.
“We’ve had a great relationship,” Brown said. “He knew he could come and go as he pleased and everything would work out. He was a good boss.”
Hughes is virtually a lifelong Swampscott resident, having been born in Brockton and moving here when he was a year old. He grew up on Humphrey Street, across from the former Temple Israel. His parents, J. Lee and Geneva Hughes, wanted him to go to Catholic school so they sent him to St. John’s elementary and then St. Mary’s Boys High School in Lynn, though he transferred to St. John’s Prep after a few days.
Hughes played football at The Prep and graduated in 1950. He went on to Holy Cross and was there for two national championships: a College World Series title in 1952 and NIT championship in ’54, his senior year.
His plan to enlist in the Air Force was derailed by a car accident that left him with a badly injured back. He chose to follow the same career path as his father, who worked as an insurance claims manager in Boston. After a year at Aetna, Hughes decided to go out on his own.
“I decided I would be better off opening my own business,” said Hughes. “I was 27 and I started with zero dollars.”
To his daughter, Kristin, it’s no mystery why he enjoyed such success and longevity.
“He’s a bit of a workaholic,” she said. “He likes to grind. Insurance is something you trust will be there when something goes wrong. That personifies my dad.”
In addition to owning a business and supporting a variety of causes in the town, Hughes has been a fabric of the athletic culture in the sports-crazed town for 50 years, serving as an assistant to legendary football coach Stan Bondelevitch and starting both the boys and girls CYO basketball programs. Later in life, he was a co-coach of the Swampscott High golf team with the late, great Bob Jauron.
“My dad really liked him and that means a lot to me,” said Dick Jauron, Swampscott’s best all-time athlete and a long-time friend of Hughes.
“Jim has been a rock, someone you could depend on being there,” Jauron added. “He wanted to help you be a better athlete and a better person. He ended up representing all that is good about volunteering your time and helping kids develop into happy, productive adults. He cared, and it really showed.”
Hughes and his wife, Nancy, have been married for 55 years and have three adult daughters – Tricia, Kim and Kristin – and two granddaughters, Daphne and Emma. Other than walking the beach and going to daily Mass, Hughes isn’t sure how he will spend his newfound free time, but he hopes he’ll figure it out.
“My wife is the one I feel bad for,” he said, echoing the good-natured thoughts of many.