Campus Closeup: Denise Hughes

When you first meet Denise Hughes (Plant Operations), you quickly get the impression she’s a no-nonsense woman who is more than capable of holding her own. She validated that view when asked what people would be most surprised to learn about her. With little thought or hesitation, Hughes said she holds the distinct honor of being a former State of Arizona arm-wrestling champion. She won the female flyweight division while living in Phoenix many years ago.


“I used to do that all the time as a kid growing up in Baraga,” said Hughes, who was known to beat some of her male peers. “We would have arm-wrestling contests during lunch at school. When I found out about the competition in Arizona, I figured I would put all that practice to use and give it a try.”


Hughes moved to the Southwest with her ex-husband and lived there for nine years before returning to the Upper Peninsula with two children. She found work at Woolworth’s in the original Marquette Mall until it closed, then enrolled as a student at NMU in the early ‘90s.


“While I was a student, I worked with the custodial staff at the PEIF. I got my business degree and worked in retail at Shopko for a while, but realized I could do better for myself at the university.”


Hughes joined the NMU staff full time in 1998 and continued the legacy started by her dad, Pete Rabine, who was a longtime custodial supervisor on campus. She was assigned to Art and Design and remained in the original portion of the building after the addition was completed. With help from a part-time student employee, Hughes is responsible for six bathrooms, an art education classroom and the following studios: cognate, jewelry, wood, sculpture and blacksmithing. Her biggest challenge is the ceramics studio in the basement.


“That’s by far the toughest to clean and you can’t really stay ahead of it,” said Hughes. “Ceramic art is just messier. The clay gets all over clothes, the walls and the floor. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘I don’t clean this place; I manage the mess.’ It would be easy to spend hours in there, so I have to make a point to tackle it later in the day after I’ve done some of the other areas first.


“I love being around art and design students because they’re so creative and not your average student. It’s rewarding to see their works in progress because they’re amazingly talented. A lot of them are so caught up in creating that they don’t always think about the clean up part or realize they’re tracking through plaster and leaving footprints that will set. I make a path and do the best I can, but I’m grateful for professors like Dale Wedig who stress that cleaning up is part of the process and require it of their students. It makes the job easier.”

As someone who prefers to work independently, Hughes says the first three hours of her shift—from 5-8 a.m. when there is little traffic—are her most productive. While leading a tour of her work environment, she pointed to a hallway wall where the word “SCULPTURE” is spelled out with varying materials for each letter (pictured). Hughes pointed to the L and said, “Do you know where that came from? My mop. They were trying to figure out something to use for that letter and one day a string from my mop came loose, so I shaped it into an L and taped it on the wall. It’s still here.”


Hughes’ daughter will graduate from NMU this spring with a social work degree. She also has one son and a grandson. Hughes is proud to say she is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for several years and more recently kicked a 30-year smoking habit. “You have to think beyond the instant gratification and think of how much you’ll hate yourself for doing it. I’ll be 50 next year and I feel more comfortable with myself now than I ever have before.”


Hughes has volunteered at the Women’s Center, co-facilitating group discussions. She enjoys snowshoeing and is passionate about gardening, whether at home or tending plants in Art and Design.


“I also ride a Harley. From the time I was very young, I remember my dad on a cycle. We used to sit in front of him and he’d give us rides all the time. He wanted me to get one in 1998. I was hesitant, but really liked it after I tried it. I still have a black-and-white picture of a bunch of riders who worked at Northern in front of Cohodas with their cycles. My dad and I were both in the shot. It’s hanging on my wall.”



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Updated: December 10, 2010

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