“Big Daddy Bob Hughes”

Miss Madison and his engineering
firm became second priority during
Carol Hughes’ struggle for life

By Don Ward

MADISON, Ind. – For years, Bob Hughes diligently worked his way up the corporate ladder, first as a tool and die worker, and later as co-founder of his own company, Clifty Engineering.

Bob Hughes

An admittedly poor student in high school, he did even worse at college, dropping out after only a few semesters. He instead relied on hard work and his knack for salesmanship to win customers and build a thriving business on the Madison hilltop that today boasts clients within a 150-mile radius.
In 1965, Tony Steinhardt asked Hughes for financial and machine shop support for the struggling community owned Miss Madison hydroplane race boat. Hughes not only obliged, but within five years was serving as president of Miss Madison Inc., the team’s governing body.
“That boat would have died a long time ago were it not for Bob Hughes,” said Steinhardt, a former team manager and previous president of Miss Madison Inc. who still serves on its board.
“Bob was a great leader and inspiration, and he was there whenever we were short of funds or needed help of any kind,” Steinhardt said.
“He has spent untold thousands keeping that boat in the water, buying parts and paying for equipment repairs,” said Hank Bentz, a Miss Madison Inc. board member for 25 years and a former WORX radio broadcaster of hydroplane racing events.
“When the boat was sponsored, we did OK. But during the years when we had no sponsor, Bob Hughes contributed his own money, time and business talents to keep us going.”
The job of president quickly put Hughes at the center of hydroplane racing and among the movers and shakers of the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association circuit. He was soon traveling to cities all across America with the Miss Madison racing team, rubbing shoulders with the sport’s top drivers, owners and sponsors.
He also has been active over the years in many charitable groups, serving as president of the local United Way chapter and the boards of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce, Lide White Boys and Girls Club and the City of Madison Port Authority. He is a member of the Elks and Moose lodges and the Madison Country Club.
But there was one job for which Hughes could never totally prepare – that of caretaker for his ailing wife, Carol, who, for a period of several years suffered nine heart attacks before dying in November 1999 at age 63.
Carol nearly died in 1997 when she suffered her seventh heart attack in her husband’s arms. He performed CPR and resuscitated her long enough until the ambulance crew arrived and brought her back to life with cardio-pulmonary paddles. He sat by her side for six weeks as she lay in Louisville’s Jewish Hospital.
This month, Hughes will mark his first Madison Regatta without his wife of 46 years, a locally popular woman who was herself an avid race fan and a primary supporter of Hughes’ many business and charitable activities.
“She was the woman behind the man, and he dearly loved her,” said Betty Helton, Hughes’ secretary, treasurer and personal assistant at Clifty Engineering for 34 years.
“We thought we had lost her several times, but her will to live was remarkable,” Helton said. “She just kept coming back after each heart attack, though not as strong. And she never once complained about her predicament.”
At this month’s Madison Regatta on July 1-2, Clifty Engineering will dedicate two races of Sunday’s unlimited hydroplane racing schedule to Carol Hughes as a tribute to her love for the sport.
“Carol loved boat racing, and she was an absolute inspiration to all of us,” said Steinhardt, marketing director of this year’s Madison Regatta.
“She was a sweetheart; she was kind and patient – those are the two words that come to mind when I think of Carol,” said Bentz, now regional marketing director for Ivy Tech State College.
Hughes, meanwhile, still struggles to maintain his composure when talking about his late wife, who in her final year was confined to a wheel chair. “Living without her has been a transition that has taken some getting used to,” said Hughes, 66.
He recalls ESPN television crews frequently filming Carol during boat races because, in the early days, no one could keep track of the laps. Carol would cling to a rope and tie a knot for each lap.
“Everyone was always asking her how many laps the boats had run,” Hughes said. “She was quite a race fan.”
Hughes recalled the Miss Madison’s 1971 Gold Cup victory in Madison as the high point of the couple’s hydroplane racing experience. “I yelled so much I couldn’t talk the next couple of days.”
Years later, with Carol’s health deteriorating, Hughes in 1997 bought a large motor home and took her on a 6,000-mile tour of the western United States. They also spent more time at their vacation home in Fort Myers, Fla.
In 1998, he took Carol on yet another trip, this time a 4,000-mile journey through the eastern United States. They also visited Branson, Mo., and attended several sporting events.
“She was a big NASCAR fan. She loved Jeff Gordon,” Hughes said.
Carol’s eighth heart attack occurred in January 1999 while the couple was vacationing in Florida. Ten months later, on Nov. 22, she suffered her ninth heart attack. She died four days later.
Helton described Carol Hughes as “a very sweet lady who idolized her husband, and he in return.”
Hughes spent many of his early years building his business. But during the last three years of Carol’s life, he made a complete turnaround, Helton said.
“He gave his time totally to her as her sole caregiver and provider. It was a side of Bob that none of us knew existed, and it was beautiful.”
Bentz said he, too, saw the transformation in Hughes. “He started Clifty Engineering in a small garage and spent a lot of his time building up that business. But when Carol became ill, he was there for her.”
Hughes’ business, meanwhile, continues to thrive, and since the couple had no children, he says he will leave it up to his core group of executives – his “extended family” – once he retires to keep Clifty Engineering going. He already has begun selling company shares to certain employees as part of that transition. The company’s association with the Miss Madison, however, is uncertain.
Helton said that despite what some might think, Clifty Engineering did not profit financially from its support of the Miss Madison.
She said that because of Hughes’ involvement, many Clifty Engineering customers developed an interest in hydroplane racing.
“Inviting clients to the Regatta became part of our customer relations.”
Bentz said, “He has 115 employees, but he buys 450 Regatta badges every year.”
On a personal level, she described Hughes’ personality as laid back but who can be forceful in business when necessary. He’s a friendly man who enjoys calling people on special occasions to wish them well.
“He has an executive planner on his desk that is filled with people’s birthdays and anniversaries,” Helton said. “He’ll call them up or draw a card that reflects their age and send it to them. He’s very good with PR; he was a born salesman.”
Charlie Grooms, the Miss Madison team manager and a Clifty Engineering employee, calls Hughes “the glue that holds (the Miss Madison team) together. I run the board meetings now and the team, but everything goes back to Bob Hughes – he’s the guy.”
For that reason, Grooms said Clifty Engineering employees and racing crew members affectionately call him “Big Daddy Bob Hughes.”
Grooms has worked alongside Hughes for many years and describes his style as direct and firm.
“The greatest part about Bob Hughes is that if you take a problem to him, he solves it right away. You may not like the result, but it gets done and you move on.”
In recent years, Hughes has started to slow down. He just bought a 52-foot houseboat that will arrive soon at Rivercrest Marina. He still belongs to four private country clubs and enjoys his social outings with friends.
He also keeps a full-time schedule at Clifty Engin-eering and says he will continue working there “as long as my health holds up, at least until I’m 70.”
Though Hughes’ legacy is well-established in the Madison business community, few residents may be aware of his longtime contributions to local charities.
“Few people I know have given back to Madison as much as he has, and without the recognition,” Bentz said. “He doesn’t seek it, but it is well-deserved.”
Hughes’ associates say that he learned to relax when he was taking care of Carol, and they are happy to see him enjoying life more.
Regardless of when he retires, Hughes says he’ll always cherish the memories from his association with the Miss Madison racing team and the Madison Regatta.
“Carol and I have met so many people and been so many places that we would have never met or visited otherwise,” he said. “And it has allowed us to share some very special times together.”

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