In Memory of Paul Hughes
Environmental Activist and Visionary
Founder and President, DeConstruction Services, LLC
and ReBuild Warehouse
by Beth Herman
At 7 p.m. on the bone-chilling evening of December 23, 2010, when Washington had long since gone for the holidays, and though he had a persistent cough, fever and raging bronchitis, Paul Hughes gave me an hour of his time. It was a phone interview and try as I might to postpone it to another day, when some semblance of his strained, raspy voice would have returned, Hughes was intent upon keeping the appointment. Though I pictured the then 67-year-old environmental activist huddled over eucalyptus-infused steam, swaddled in a polar fleece wrap on the sofa of a dimly lit room, in reality I learned he was sitting upright at his desk, multitasking, computer humming, lights blazing, as though it was just another day (or night) at the office.
True to his deep sense of humanity and character, something revealed to me not so much by his robust bio and hard-won list of achievements but rather by the unrelenting credit and opportunity he gave to everyone else, Hughes was a quiet revolutionary. Cuirassed in earth-friendly prose and practices, he soldiered on, in fact early on, long before concepts like “renewable” and “sustainable” became as commonplace and easy to swallow as butter and toast.
Though legions of green crusaders roamed the planet, a fierce dedication to recycling, repurposing and renewing people’s lives—maybe even more so than the old lumber he pulled out of deconstructed homes through his Fairfax, Virginia-based DeConstruction Services, LLC—was what distinguished Paul Hughes.
In addition to harvesting old materials and making them available at supremely reduced rates to the public through his 501(c)(3) organization ReBuild Warehouse, the former nonprofit grant and environmental services consultant gave dozens of nonviolent ex-offenders a chance to turn their lives around. With valuable training and full-time employment offered through his businesses, Hughes invested in human dignity as much as anything else.
“It’s going 180 degrees against the trend,” he’d said in that 2010 interview: http://www.dcmud.blogspot.com/2011/01/recycling-lumber-and-lives.html . “Most contractors are trying to get away from employing a lot of people…so they can offload liability costs, worker’s comp and matching social security. They contract everything out to subcontractors and let them worry about where to get laborers—often just day laborers to whom fewer laws apply, and who have little hope of pulling themselves up.”
Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, and marrying his University of Toledo sweetheart, Linda, Paul Hughes “…had his fingers in so many pies—he just had so many different interests,” according to his wife. Following their 1967 marriage, Hughes was instrumental in setting up Hospice of Northern Virginia in a former school building—the region’s first hospice. With an eye to environmental issues, he also vehemently resisted the Lorton incinerator project, though sadly lost the battle.
When ReBuild Warehouse, established in Springfield, Virginia 2008, suddenly lost its lease three years later, in typical fashion and wasting no time, Hughes diligently acquired a smaller space as an interim measure to continue to serve and educate the community. Staff (largely volunteer), hours and convenience were cut back, but he kept moving forward.
Hughes’ good friend Hank Blakely called him “a force of nature.” A lay minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in which Hughes was also active, Blakely is also on the board of directors of the Reston Citizen’s Association, vice president of Sustainability Reston and also of parent company the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth—an organization started by the visionary Hughes.
In his spare time, Hughes spent weekends canvassing flea markets and farmer’s markets, handing out brochures about the environment. “He was so far ahead of everyone else in his environmental thinking—particularly in the beginning— it could be frustrating when people couldn’t comprehend his vision and sense of urgency,” Linda Hughes said.
According to Blakely, Hughes was the "Johnny Appleseed of nonprofit organizations in Northern Virginia. He put his heart and his money where his voice was on these issues. He absolutely backed the things that he believed in,” he said about his friend, who was also Northern Virginia Green Party chairperson.
Toward the end of our phone interview on that pre-holiday evening, I recall making a note to myself to meet Paul Hughes, but like many of us I simply put it off, content to keep myself updated through ReBuild Warehouse’s e-newsletters about their many challenges and achievements. He died on September 15 from cardiac arrest following a bicycle ride with his wife.
With all he had accomplished, Linda said there were many more things he wanted to do. He could still see ahead. The economy was changing and things were opening up again.
Said Blakely, “It never struck us that Paul would go away. It just felt like he would always be here.”