From New Guinea with Love
In 1943, a letter addressed to Sergeant James Hughes made its way from Mineola, Texas, to the jungles of New Guinea. Serving his time on the South Pacific Island in World War II, James considered the letter a welcomed sight, until he read its contents. It was a Dear John letter from his girlfriend back home. He was devastated.
A few weeks into his heartbreak, a member of Sargent Hughes’ squadron approached him and told him it might cheer him up if he would just write to another girl back in the states. This helpful soldier explained he had a 17-year-old sister in Michigan named Josie Green and she would probably write back if the sergeant would simply start the process. Considering he was under constant attack from the Japanese, he needed to put his heartbreak behind him and that the dating prospects among the native tribal women were basically zero, James Hughes decided to give it a shot and began to write letters to Josie Green. The two became quick friends through the letters they wrote to each other. Those letters took a long time to get from New Guinea to Michigan and vice versa, but the couple wrote to each other for two solid years before they ever laid eyes on each other.
After the war, Hughes headed straight to Michigan to find the young woman that he had only talked to through words on paper. Not only did James find Josie, but he changed her last name from Green to Hughes on May 30, 1946. And so, their adventure began.
The couple made their way to Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, so James could finish up his undergraduate degree. From there, the pair moved to Chicago, where James had been accepted to the college of optometry at Northern Illinois University; one of only seven schools of optometry in the United States at the time. While in Chicago, the couple had their first child, Joy. Anxious about where he would move his family after graduation, James’ classmate, J. C. Norris, suggested they set up shop in his hometown of Atlanta, Texas. J.C. was headed to another Texas town to provide optometric services, but said Atlanta was a good town in which to raise a family, and there was no optometrist there.
Taking the advice of his classmate, the newly graduated Dr. Hughes, Josie, and Joy moved to Atlanta, where he opened his first practice. The young family settled well into the small town. His practice quickly filled with patients and the couple quickly became involved in civic organizations and church activities. In 1951, a second daughter, Jill, was born and in 1954, a third daughter, Jan, completed the Hughes clan.
Jan was identified at birth as having Down Syndrome. In 1954, not much was known about the genetic disorder except that there were intellectual and developmental delays. Obviously, Jan’s condition came as an unexpected blow to the family, but Josie took her daughter’s diagnosis especially hard. She blamed herself. For months, she grieved the normal life Jan might have had and then, one day, Josie decided to dig her heels in and raise Jan as normally as she did her other two girls. With James’ full support, the couple and their three girls thrived. Sure, there were other unexpected curve balls thrown their way, but this was a family grounded by a husband and wife who refused to be shaken. James and Josie even refused to be shaken when a few townspeople told them they should send Jan away to a “home” so they wouldn’t have to deal with her “condition.” The couple never considered it for a second. They continued to love each other and raise the family the Lord gave them.
Growing up, I was a patient of Dr. Hughes. He fitted me for my first pair of glasses in 1985. I was eight years old and thought my life was over. I mean, come on! It was the eighties, and those big, plastic-framed glasses were not cute. After two years of wearing those wretched things, Dr Hughes knew I loathed them and, somehow, convinced my mother that I would have clearer vision in contact lenses. So, a few days after school let out for the summer, my mom dropped me off at Dr Hughes’ office. Mrs. Hughes, who frequently helped around the practice, was there to help me learn how to put the contacts in my eyes. Bless her heart, she worked all morning with 10-year-old me, but I could not get past the fact that I was sticking my finger in my eyes. Lunch time rolled around, and Dr. Hughes told me to take a break. He and Mrs. Hughes took me across the street to Walker’s Drug Store. The three of us ate the best chicken salad ever made, and he bought me ice cream. All these years later, I figure it was the ice cream (and maybe a whole lot of encouragement from Mrs. Hughes) that must have done it, because when we all got back to the office, I was able to put those contacts in my eyes all by myself!
I am so grateful for that sweet memory with the Hughes. They were such a great husband and wife team. Together, they built an optometry practice that served the people of Atlanta for forty-six years. Together, they gave free pairs of glasses to patients that couldn’t afford to pay. Together, they raised three beautiful daughters. Together, they poured into their community and their church. James and Josie Hughes weathered many storms in this life, but always together.
In 2010, Dr. James Hughes passed away, just weeks shy of his and Josie’s sixty-fourth anniversary. Five years later, their sweet, full-of-sunshine daughter, Jan, also passed away. With two members of their family gone, Josie, Joy, and Jill are left to tell the tales of their many amazing family memories. In the years since their passing, Josie now lives with Jill. She will be ninety-six years old this November and her memory has failed her. She does not remember most people, her travels or many of the specific events in her life. Occasionally, she still asks where James is and must be gently reminded. Now and then, though, if a story of her younger years with James is told, Josie hones in and her entire demeanor changes. She smiles like she used to, and you can tell that her heart is letting her re-live a memory of the soldier who once wrote her beautiful love letters from the jungles of New Guinea.