Wednesday, May 22, 2002
Deputy City Attorney Ken Hughey Enjoying Third Career as He Turns 70
By NAZANIN AGANGE, Staff Writer
His wife proudly calls it “unusual.” A lifelong friend says it just isn’t done. A veteran attorney calls it “crazy.” It took a superior court judge by surprise.
But Deputy City Attorney Kenneth R. Hughey, who turns 70 today, says taking up law five years ago just seemed natural.
When most people are planning retirement, the record-breaking fighter pilot, ex-Vietnam POW and aerospace administrator was studying for the California bar exam. And passing it before graduating from law school.
“Law was always in the back of my head,” Hughey says. “Law, to me, was an intellectual challenge and fun.”
Hughey was first accepted to law school 30 years ago but chose instead to continue his Air Force career. He retired in 1979, only to start a new career at Hughes Aircraft Company.
In 1994, while working full-time as a manager of the Hughes Space and Missile Division, Hughey began taking classes at University of West Los Angeles School of Law. He retired from Hughes in December 1995 to concentrate on his new passion, cheered on by his wife, Sue.
“Sue encouraged me to go right when I started talking about it and she’d encouraged me the first time,” Hughey says. “‘If I’m going to do it,’ I said, ‘I got to do it now because I’m not getting any younger.’”
Just before his 65th birthday, he found out that he passed the bar. A few days later he graduated. Twice-retired, Hughey began a new career and a private practice.
“I intended to practice law,” Hughey says. “I didn’t intend, when I got on, to do just criminal law. I set up shop to do personal injury and family law [and bankruptcy] ... I just fell into [criminal law].”
Hughey began working at the City Attorney’s Office in San Pedro to get trial and criminal law experience and never left.
“Law is the most exciting job he’s had,” Sue Hughey says. “He has said to me several times ‘I am having more fun [than ever], I can’t say it’s as good as flying fighter planes, but close.’”
Cindy Arnette, a family friend for more than 10 years, says Hughey’s decision to start a third career might have shocked her, if it were anyone else.
“There are so many things he’s interested in,” Arnette reflects. “Nothing really surprises me with him. Be careful when the man says he’s interested in something.”
Sue Hughey muses, “When he joined the City Attorney’s Office ... he said he wants to be a judge. I said to him ‘Why don’t you enjoy where you are?’ And he said, ‘You know, you’re right.’”
Mark Arnette, who met Hughey while working at Hughes, says Hughey’s ambition and fervor would not let him retire from law any time soon.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up getting another pension out of this,” Arnette says.
Hughey was born and raised in Tennessee, where he met his wife, whom he’s been married to for 49 years. After graduating high school, at age 17, Hughey enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
“I never wanted to be anything but a fighter pilot,” Hughey says. “Some guys want to be doctors, some think they want to be lawyers. That’s all I ever wanted to be. [But] you can’t fly fighters forever.”
Hughey joined a pilot training program, completed fighter gunnery school and was married by 1954. He then earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Colorado. He was instructing other Air Force pilots when he met Bud Flesher, now the president and CEO of Aptek Industries in San Jose. Flesher calls Hughey “absolutely my best friend.”
Hughey first flew in Vietnam from 1965 to July 1967, when he was shot down over North Vietnam. He ejected, and both he and his “back-seater” on the two-man F4 Phantom II fighter plane were captured.
Hughey was taken almost immediately to a POW prison. As a prisoner, he was transferred between four prisons over six years. He spent 14 months in a one-man cell and five months in complete isolation. The prisoners tapped against the walls in code, sending each other messages.
This was his silver lining, he says.
“We never exchanged pleasantries, always vital information,” Hughey says. “This communication was all you had to hang onto. It helped morale just talking to somebody. These guys were alive, they could communicate enough to establish a chain of command. We were still military people: still had discipline.”
After 31/2 years, he was able to write to his wife; it was the first time she could confirm he was still alive.
“It was a challenge for me waiting and not knowing,” Sue Hughey says. “The fact that we’re together is a miracle. Waiting was worse than death.”
In 1973, when Hughey was released from the camp, he went to Long Beach State University for his master’s in English. He took his LSAT and was admitted to Pepperdine’s law school in 1975, but instead accepted an offer at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo working on space and missile systems.
In 1979, Hughey retired as a colonel, with numerous decorations, including two Silver Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars, and four Purple Hearts.
Hughey had more combat missions than anyone before or since.
Flesher speculates that both he and Hughey were part of a generation that “felt the threat of communism” and adopted a deep sense of patriotism in response.
“There was never any doubt whatsoever that we had to stay in the Air Force during the cold war,” Flesher recounts. “We had a responsibility, an obligation ... to keep producing.”
“I didn’t do anything spectacular,” Hughey says of his 564 combat missions. “I’ve just got more combat experience than anyone would ever need.”
Flesher, who was shot down six months before Hughey, takes issue with Hughey’s modesty, calling his friend a hero with a “chest full of medals.”
“He’s still my hero ... the epitome of what an American citizen should be,” Flesher says. “I’d still fly his wing any day.”
Even during his first retirement Hughey couldn’t sit still. He, Sue, and their son, Ken Hughey II, moved to Tennessee for a year. He taught math at Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tenn., but “didn’t like not being active.” And his wife, he claims, “cried every day we were there.”
They moved back to California and Hughey began working at Hughes Aircraft, overseeing launch planning and execution for Air Force missions.
Hughey started taking law classes while working at Hughes and retired the year before graduating. During this retirement he completed two externships: one with the city of Los Angeles in police litigation and one with federal Bankruptcy Judge Phillip Vincent Zurzolo.
His post with the city introduced him to criminal litigation, Hughey says, and his work in bankruptcy law was fun and interesting.
“I looked forward to every new vista in law school,” Hughey says. “I could have studied law till now.”
But completing law school was not easy, Hughey recalls.
“For four years, my nights and weekends went away,” he says. When he traveled to supervise launches for Hughes he always carried a briefcase packed with law books.
“You just don’t take on law school at his age and do as well,” Flesher comments. When Hughey passed the bar, Flesher says, they had a “tremendous celebration over the phone.”
John William Hill, who has been a lawyer for over 30 years, says, “I’ve heard of a lot of people going back to school, a lot of retreads, but I never heard of this.”
“He has no compunction about undertaking monumental tasks,” Hill, of Hill & Associates, says. “Most people are bowing out when he’s coming in.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Mirich, who has known Hughey since he joined the City Attorney’s Office, says he did not realize Hughey wasn’t a seasoned attorney.
“He was a good attorney from the start,” Mirich says. “He was definitely not the young kid out of law school.”
San Pedro Supervising Attorney Bernie Brown calls Hughey hardworking and dedicated. He commented that Hughey “has just as much energy as a 17 year old ... a calm, relaxed demeanor ... [and] the highest degree of consideration and regard for the law.”
“Judges rave to me about him as having the ability of getting along with everybody,” Brown says. “In this profession that is quite an accomplishment.”
Mirich confirms Brown’s claim, saying that that “trust is all important in this game” and Hughey’s “integrity has earned the trust of the defense attorneys.”
“When you have a trust you can establish by reputation, it’s easy to negotiate and resolve cases,” Mirich continues. “He is of the highest caliber in terms of his reputation for being fair and honest.”
Mirich calls Hughey a welcome relief in a calendar court hearing 35-40 cases a day.
“It’s nice to see a prepared attorney who’s knowledgeable,” Mirich says. “It’s obvious that he’s prepared in spite of a system” that has attorneys juggling many cases at once.
“[Law] has added a lot of excitement,” Hughey comments. He calls law interesting and challenging and says that’s what drew him to it. He notes that working with victims of crimes has been especially rewarding.
“At least you get some vindication for them,” Hughey says. “And some help for the defendant as well; you hope that it works.”
Hughey says his birthday is not making him think about retirement.
“Oh, I’m never going to retire,” Hughey says in his mild Southern drawl. “They’re gonna carry me out feet first.”
“He has to have a challenge in his life, always,” his wife says. “This man, any time he sees something that’s well done, he says ‘oh, I want to do that.’ His passions are widespread.”
Hughey’s latest enterprise is skeet shooting. He lists becoming a better shotgunner a top goal. How much better?
“I’d like to go to the Olympics,” he says.
With all his accomplishments, Hughey believes that he does not compare to his hero, Charles Lingbergh.
“I haven’t affected the world,” he says. “[Lindbergh] did something that affected the world for time and eternity.”
Hughey credits all his success to his wife.
“I wouldn’t even be alive today if it wasn’t for her,” Hughey says. “She sent me through law school, kept our family going. Everything we’ve ever done is a team effort because I couldn’t have done any of this solo.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company