Back in the early 1960s, I worked as a flight test engineer for Hughes Tool Co.-Aircraft Division. This was Howard Hughes’ personal company that he used to finance all his aviation projects. I was a young engineer then and somewhat of a smart-ass once in a while and I worked with very knowledgeable aircraft mechanics. One day, I referred to Hughes as “Uncle Howie” in jest. The Chief Mechanic, John Thomas, called me over and said “Kid, listen to this story”. Thomas had worked for Hughes on the H-1 Spruce Goose and other projects and respected him highly.
Back in the late 1940s, they were working in Culver City at the Hughes facility. The usual routine for aircraft mechanics was to come into work 15 minutes early, have a coffee and at 7:30am, pull out your tools from those old, oak tool boxes with the sliding drawers and start work. One Monday morning in 1949, a mechanic came into work with tears running down his face. The other guys asked what was wrong and he said that his 8 yr old daughter had contracted polio and was in an Iron Lung machine in misery. (In those days, when I was a kid, polio was the fear of all parents since it could result in paralysis forever and was especially virile in the summer months. If it went into the breathing system of the body, it stopped lung functions).
The doctors indicated that there was an operation that might help alleviate some of the breathing problems at a cost of eight thousand dollars! In those days, that was equal to over 6 years of wages for the mechanic, and there was no medical insurance. He had gone to banks attempting to get a loan for the operation but as they lived in an apartment and had an old car, he didn’t have sufficient collateral for a loan. The man was miserable.
Eight days later, the mechanic came to work and opened his toolbox. Inside one of the drawers was a plain white envelope with his name hand-written on the front. He opened it in front of Thomas and others. There was no note inside, no TV crews doing the news, no reporters, no fanfare; just 8, one-thousand dollar bills. Such a sum could only have come from one source, Howard Hughes. I then understood why the mechanics respected him as they did. He may have had eccentricities and did unusual things, but Mr. Hughes took care of his workers and earned respect by doing, not talking. How many of today’s CEOs would do such a fine thing, quietly, because it was the right thing to do?
From that moment on, I called him Mr. Hughes... And still do.