“Wait here, she said curtly. “He may not be able to see you today.” She returned to her perfectly organized, highly polished desk, looking everywhere but in my direction. She tapped a few keys on the typewriter, looked at the paper, apparently admiring her work, then began typing again rapid-fire, machine gunning another paragraph or two.
I noticed that every hair was in place, nails done, blouse ironed and sharply creased, the quintessential secretary, in the days when they were called secretaries. She seemed to fit the spacious office, the one with the windows, and filled it with her presence.
I was here for an interview, subject to be determined. The man was a legend, we’d met a few times, he’d nodded and that was it. For the most part he was a name on the Agency’s organization chart, no more, to me.
The intercom buzzed, and allowing a few seconds, she leaned forward and said in a whisper, “yes, sir?” The voice on the machine was slightly garbled and I could barely hear what he was saying. She, on the other hand, was practiced at listening to her boss and recognizing even the most obscure speech.
As quickly as she let her manicured finger slip from the intercom button she stood and again recognizing that I was in the room looking smaller and smaller, said, “Mr. Hughes can see you now.” It was a scolding tone, one that personal secretaries to famous men used with lowly types to make sure that decorum was maintained in the outer and in the inner office.
She pressed a hidden switch as I stood and I heard a loud click, signaling my entrance into John Hughes’s office here on the third, the executive floor. I walked in and approaching his desk, offered to shake hands. John suffered by debilitating arthritis but with every ounce of effort he could muster, stood and shook my hand. He was under 50 but looked 70, frail and pale, bowed, walking with a limp.
His office was devoid of the “me” pictures that people of his stature seemed to collect and display: photos with kings, queens, presidents, citations and the like. Just a few World War II captured German oils dotted the walls, the kind of paintings that the allies tried to give back to the new Germany but they demurred, wanting to forget the Third Reich and its artists.
John Hughes motioned for me to sit down at a long Mahogany table near his desk. I noticed that he carried a small yellow pencil and a notepad, unlined in his right hand. He placed both on the table as he spoke. “Roger, I want to offer you a chance to work with me on a special and important project.” Not pausing he continued, “You come highly recommended by a number of people whom I trust, and I am sure you know, and that is good enough for me.”
“Mr. Hughes,” I stammered, “thank you for this opportunity. I won’t disappoint you.”
He looked at me above his tortoise shell colored glasses. “Do you have a family, Roger, if I may ask?”
“Yes sir, I do. A wife and a baby daughter, sir.”
“Remember that they come first, Roger. The work we do is important but they are more important. Please remember that.”
“I will,” I said softly folding my hands on his polished table then lifting them to see if I’d left a mark.
“Go home and see them, tell them that you’re going to do something that might keep you at work a little late sometimes, but tell them that you care for them, and that you’ll be back soon.” He struggled to get up, unsteadily grasping the arm of his chair. For a minute I thought he was going to fall. I heard my heart and his ticking clock measure the beats.
“Thank you Mr. Hughes,” I said, again shaking his hand. “I appreciate your confidence in me.”
I remembered his words when for the next 18 months I was a slave to the project, working nights, weekends, through Christmas Eve and into Christmas morning, only calling my family to wish them a Merry Christmas.
I stood proudly with him as he and I received the Agency’s and the Department’s highest honor for our work. In his remarks he took none of the credit, offering thanks to everyone else.
The John Hughes for whom I worked was the man who in October 1962 briefed President John F. Kennedy about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. A young analyst, he was chosen to stand in front of a large image of the island, annotated with the location of the missiles. Later, he would conduct the same briefing for a nationally televised broadcast. Like most men who have changed history, John Hughes was, at heart, a man who believed in family, and in the home above all else. His sense of duty, that calling that makes men and women work incredibly hard for a cause, was passed to me during that interview. I told his widow at his funeral that I appreciated his kindness and his devotion to her. She nodded, knowing that it was so.