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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bringing Some Good Humor to Fairfield

Bringing Some Good Humor to Fairfield
(Appeared 9/23 on front page of Fairfield-Sun newspaper) 
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – “Hi Wright!” say all the moms as they approach or pass. “Can I have an ice cream?” say all the kids with them. The children are just getting out of school at Roger Sherman Elementary, their moms have come to meet them and all have made a detour to Wright’s Ice Cream truck, parked near the playground on Fern Street.

Wright Hugus Jr., 79, long known as Fairfield’s ice cream man, is a town fixture. But few know of his colorful, storied background. In a recent interview at his Cape-style, beach area home, surrounded by family photos, tennis trophies and his two Golden Retrievers Bromley and Sadie, Hugus served up a freezer full of facts.

Boy of Steel
Hugus was born in 1930 in an affluent section of Wheeling, West Virginia, which he described as “a steel town, or was when there was such a thing.” His grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Hugus, founded the former Wheeling Steel Corporation. Wright’s dad, Wright Hugus Sr., was a prominent attorney and politician – the head of the Republican Party in West Virginia. His mother, Martha Majesky Hugus, was a teacher, musician and early women’s charity organizer and volunteer.

Hugus attended a regular public elementary school – just like Roger Sherman – and was active in football, baseball and basketball. He also excelled in tennis, taught to play at age 3 or 4 by his father, a nationally ranked tennis player.

The sports-minded lad was “a book nut”, too, a passion that continues to this day. “I have a computer database of the books I’ve read in the past 10 years. There are over 470 in there. I read about one a week. Modern fiction, action and history.”

His high school years were spent at Greenbrier Military School. “My father felt I needed the discipline – I was a pain in the ass, very independent. It was a way to make a man out of a boy. This was right after World War II, so that was the thinking.” Hugus was #1 in his class and won all the academic medals, graduating in 1948.

Choosing a college presented a dilemma. “My father had gone to Dartmouth and Harvard Law. My grandfather went to Harvard Law and West Virginia University. I thought I needed to break the mold and go to a modern top university. I visited Duke with a friend of my father’s, a tennis player, and I was very impressed. I started there in 1948 and graduated in 1952 with a B.A., majoring in English and History, which in that day was the thing.”

Hugus returned home and married local girl/fellow Duke student Betty Woods. “I like to say she chased me down there – she was two years younger.” The Korean War was on and the draft was in effect, so Hugus joined the Navy and went to Officers Candidate School in Newport, RI. He came out in 1953 as an Ensign.

Capitol Chap
“I initially wanted to serve on a submarine,” he said, “but there was no availability.” As such, he went off to Washington, DC, assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). “My role was to investigate cases of sabotage, espionage and counter intelligence. The whole Communist world was overcoming us at the time. And this was the McCarthy Era, too. Everyone was scared of Communism. You might say the Russian bear raised its ugly head, as the Russians backed North Korea.”

Hugus’ office was in the Naval Observatory, on a 100-acre parcel in northwest Washington, which is where the Vice President’s residence is as well. “It was a great place to work and I lived in Georgetown, so it was just up the street. I learned so much, including a little Russian. One task was to review and analyze a U.S.-based Communist paper called the Daily Worker. I was also a liaison to the FBI, CIA (then the OSS), Army Intelligence and the National Security Agency. One scary moment was being detained at the Yugoslavian Embassy!”

He related his amusing first day on the job: “The area commander assigned me to a civilian investigator. He said he’d show me the ropes. We went for coffee, a noon lunch, then to the movies. He said, ‘That’s Naval Intelligence!’”

While in the Navy, he and his wife had two children, Stephanie and Christin. Hugus was released from active duty in August 1956, after achieving the rank of full lieutenant. He then applied to and was accepted at the University of Virginia Law School. “I think my hero Thomas Jefferson (his grandfather’s namesake) had something to do with my decision, as he founded and designed the university. UVA provided a well-rounded national legal background.”

Racecar Driver & Law Man
Millbank Tweed, a top Wall Street law firm, agreed to hire Hugus, but just before graduation in 1959, his father passed away. Wright Sr. had headed up a local Wheeling law firm, which then tried to push the family out. The family sued and settled, taking Hugus Sr.’s name out of the firm’s title. “The experience taught me to be cautious and made me realize I wanted to practice law in a small town.”

Hugus stayed in Wheeling for three years, until 1962. With some money his dad had left him, he also bought a racecar – a 1959 Triumph TR3-A – and began racing it with the Sports Car Club of America. Over a five-year period, he owned four different racecars.

At that point, he wanted to find a more stable town environment, and considered law firms all over the country. He ended up in Greenwich, CT. Lowell Weicker, now an ex-senator, hired him.

Hugus enjoyed a 15-year run in Greenwich practicing general law and became a partner. He had a son, Wright III, too, in 1965. “The last five years I was there, I drifted into sports law, which influenced me to establish my own firm, Hugus Enterprises, in 1975. I was one of the first attorneys to specialize in sports law and sports management.”

Sports like tennis, golf and skiing were amateur sports then and the athletes didn’t make money. As these became professional sports, the athletes needed representation and services. Hugus also helped set up the organizations, like the U.S. Ski Team, which he represented for eight years. Notable first clients included first woman Indy racer Janet Guthrie and gold medal Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill.

Hugus ran his business until 1980 when he contracted double pneumonia. This led to chronic bronchial asthma, and ultimately to cancer of the larynx. He moved to Aspen, CO, was treated over a three-year period by the doctor for the U.S. Ski Team and, in 1984, moved back to Connecticut. There he started Barrister Enterprises, providing database services for professionals, and ultimately settled in Fairfield with new wife Elizabeth Thomas, a financial consultant.

Hugus operated Barrister until 1990, then set up and ran an internal database at a bankruptcy law firm in Bridgeport for another four years. It was after retiring in 1994 that he dipped into the world of Good Humor Ice Cream.


Ice Cream Dream
When Fairfield resident Wright Hugus Jr. retired from his last corporate position as a database manager, he was looking for things to do besides his charitable pursuits and involvement as a member of the First Church Congregational.

“I wanted to work and run my own little business. There was an ad in the Bridgeport newspaper for ice cream vendors. I went to a meeting hosted by Blue Sky Bar, a Good Humor distributor and truck owner. Coming back in the car, I was laughing, thinking, ‘Wright, you’ve done a lot, but you haven’t done this.’ It was also a way of putting down roots in a new community. That was 16 years ago.”

Says Hugus, reflecting on the pursuit, “You wouldn’t believe the pleasure I get when a kid comes up to the truck, looks at all the flavors and his eyes light up. And you see the kids grow up over time. There’s nothing to dislike about ice cream.”

His current vehicle is a 1972 GMC Good Humor truck. At the height of its business, Good Humor owned and operated around 3,000 trucks nationwide. They ultimately sold these and are now just in the wholesale ice cream business.

Hugus essentially works seven days a week, visiting schoolyards, neighborhoods, picnics, birthdays, business events, soccer games, summer camps and concerts on the Green.

Most popular selections? Cookie sandwiches, lemon/lime shots, fudge bars, ice cream sandwiches and all five of the original Good Humor flavors dating back to 1927: Vanilla Bar, Toasted Almond, Chocolate Éclair, Candy Center Crunch and Strawberry Shortcake.

“The truck is like a meeting place or a water fountain at a business. Everyone’s around it. It’s a familiar, warm and fuzzy event… and it makes me feel good about what I’m doing.”