Their reminder each spring that the Broad Street Run was approaching came when the principal dashed down Montgomery Avenue as the sun was rising, finishing another training run before the school day started at Lower Merion High School.
“Everyone would be honking at him,” said Joe Callahan, a social studies teacher at the school. “Sean Hughes had a very unique running style, and I’m not making fun of him because he ran faster than I did, but it was very unique so you knew right away it was him when you saw him smoking down Montgomery Avenue.”
Hughes ran Broad Street more than 20 times so rallying the school around this year’s race felt like a fitting way to remember the popular principal after he died in November in a car crash. Callahan and Diane Shannon, a reading specialist at Lower Merion, created a team for Sunday’s race and printed T-shirts with the proceeds going toward a trust benefiting Hughes’ three children.
The support blew them away. It seemed like everyone wanted to help from the junior who designed the T-shirt, to the secretary who launched the website, to the special needs students who will distribute the shirts.
Hughes was the school’s principal for 14 years, beloved by both students and staff for always making himself available even after he had just returned from Montgomery Avenue.
“I would see him later at school after he finished his run,” Shannon said. “And he got showered and had his duffle bag over his shoulder in the hallway, he was already surrounded by people. So I guess it was the only time he had to himself.
“He was such a good person. Even though his school life was so busy, he always had time for you. He always just did the right thing. If you went to him with a problem or with something that needed to be worked out, you always felt listened to. He always made time for you even though his phone could be ringing off the hook. He would just ignore it and live in the present moment.”
The school was stunned last year when Hughes, 51, died 12 days before Thanksgiving when police said a 54-year-old man was speeding and ran a stop sign in Winslow Township, Camden County, before slamming into Hughes’ SUV as he drove his 13-year-old son to a soccer game. Hughes’ son survived as did the other driver, who was arrested last month and charged with vehicular homicide.
“Leading Lower Merion High School was deeply rewarding for Sean but also very demanding,” said his wife, Kristi. “So when he wasn’t working or spending time coaching his kids or with his family, he was running. He ran to decompress, and he ran because he truly loved it. Competing in the Broad Street Run was something he looked forward to every year, for well over 20 years — in rain or shine, in heat and freezing temps. This is where he was able to compete with the best runners in the country and push himself to beat his own PR. He would be extremely humbled that Team Hughes 2022, many members of the Lower Merion community as well as some of Sean’s close friends, are uniting as a team and will hold him in their hearts and minds as they run and allow him to cross the finish line one more time.”
Classes stop at Lower Merion for an hour each day for “lunch and learn” as half the school eats for 30 minutes while the other half is free to meet with teachers. A half hour later, the groups switch. For that entire hour, it was never hard to find the principal.
“He would just hang out in the cafeteria for an hour and chat with the kids. He loved it, and they loved him,” said Karen deFranco, an assistant principal. “You could go to him for anything, and that applied to anyone in this building: a student, a teacher, any faculty or staff member, a custodian. No matter who you were, he always made you feel important and it was a gift like none I’ve ever seen before.”
Hughes was hired in 1998 to be a social studies teacher at Lower Merion before moving 10 years later to the principal’s office. Callahan said Hughes — who he met when they were training together as first-year teachers — never forgot what it was like to be in the classroom.
And he never forgot about the impact a teacher can have on students outside of school, imploring his faculty to support the students at their sports games or school plays. Hughes always found a way to be there.
“He bled maroon and white,” Callahan said. “There was no question about it and the kids knew that. The door was always open. People say that and that’s often lip service. This was a reality.”
“He was one of their biggest cheerleaders. Whatever they wanted to do, he supported them,” Shannon said. “Like we have all these kids now that come up with their own clubs. We say, ‘Sure. Just figure out how to do it and we’ll support you.’ He was that kind of person.”
The school mourned Hughes’ death but Shannon said she is now sensing that people are looking for ways to celebrate his life. The school shut down for an hour earlier this month so the students could film a “lip dub” music video dedicated to Hughes, who started the tradition years ago. And the Broad Street Run T-shirts provided another way to remember the principal who started his days pounding the pavement on Montgomery Avenue.
“I don’t even know what time he got up in the morning,” said Shannon as Hughes lived about 25 miles north of the school in Harleysville.
The drives into school each morning are still tough, especially as the joggers returned in the spring to Montgomery Avenue. The principal in the runner’s hat and the unique running style is missing. The funny stories he would tell about the dogs he encountered on his runs are now just memories.
Their reminder this year that another Broad Street Run is approaching hits them every morning when they don’t see Hughes blazing down Montgomery Avenue. But the Lower Merion community will remember its beloved principal on Sunday when its members run the race that he loved.
“To this day, if there’s people running, I still find myself looking,” deFranco said.