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Nancy Hughes poses at the John and Nancy Hughes Theater in Lake Forest. Photo Courtesy Robin Subar Photography
Alan P. Henry, Freelance Reporter
9:47 am CDT September 26, 2019

Theirs was a love that would last a lifetime.

Nancy Ludwig, the popular, pretty blonde senior at Glenbrook North High School, loved music. So did classmate John Hughes, who would later create the iconic coming-of-age teen comedy films that dominated the 1980s. They met in 1967 while painting homecoming murals. And kaboom! That was that.

Three years later, “they did something very countercultural: they got married and settled down,” wrote the author of a 2010 Vanity Fair profile of Hughes.

“When you know a little bit about John’s history with Nancy…he was a penguin that mated for life,” recalled Matthew Broderick, longtime friend and star of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” in the article.

“And so was Ferris,” he added.

Nancy Hughes died Sept. 15, 2019 at age 68. John died in 2009, just short of their 40th anniversary. But during those years, oh what a life they lived.

In the early years, they loved going to rock concerts and Chicago blues and reggae clubs, and became the parents of two sons, John Jr. and James. John soon began screenwriting and directing movies that reflected observations from the young couple's lives and shared experiences in towns like Northbrook, Glencoe, and Northfield. The 1980s films “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and “Home Alone” are today considered movie classics.

Nancy, a longtime Lake Forest resident, was a critical component of that success, offering thoughts on various aspects of the process, and feedback on early cuts of his films.

“So much of her life was helping to make my dad so great and being a team player with him,” their son John told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Those movies wouldn’t have been made without her. She played defense for him and built this wall around him. It was really inspiring to see how complementary they would be to each other. It was kind of unstoppable.”

One of his movies, “She’s Having a Baby,” starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern, was a romantic comedy released in 1988 about a couple trying to cope with married life and their parents' expectations. The film was dedicated to Nancy.

The couple moved briefly to Arizona and then to California for close to five years in the mid 1980s, but wherever they went, Nancy made their house a home, overseeing a happy hodgepodge of family laughter, good food, card games, and music. Hospitality was also shared with close friends like John Candy, others dating back to grade school, and those over the years in need of a comforting respite. During all of those years, the couple also kept a house in Northfield so the boys could enjoy a chilly Christmas and an island of sanity far away from the Hollywood craziness if needed.

In 1989, John and Nancy purchased the first parcel of what would become the 1,000 acre Redwing Farm in Harvard, Illinois. Tiring of the movie scene, he reforested much of the property and created a working farmstead.

For the decade following John’s death from a heart attack in 2009, Nancy continued her commitment to the long-term health of her parents. Her father Henry died in 2013. Nancy had welcomed her mother Naomi into her Lake Forest home for the final months of her life, before dying in her sleep on Sept. 5, 2019. The night after the services for Naomi, Nancy fell ill. For five days, she was treated in the intensive care unit at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, before dying on Sept. 15.

In her final years, Nancy was a dedicated philanthropist, especially in Lake Forest.

She donated significantly to the Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, where the John & Nancy Hughes Pavilion now stands. The Hughes Auditorium at the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center of Northwestern University in Chicago opened in 2005. 

She was particularly committed to the renovation of Lake Forest's Gorton Community Center, which renamed its auditorium the John & Nancy Hughes Theater. The state-of-the-art 340-seat facility regularly hosts lectures, screenings, and more. 

In 2014, Blaire Nagel, Gorton's board chairman, said of the transformations: “Imagine enjoying 'Miracle on 34th Street' with friends and neighbors after the annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony or seeing your child perform their very first concert with state-of-the art sound. Thanks to Nancy and her family, we will be able to provide these kinds of events for the community.”

“I am elated to give my blessing to this theater named in memory of my late husband, John,” Nancy said the same year. “He spent many of his best years as a filmmaker and father in the city of Lake Forest. Our family found it a fitting tribute to his film legacy, which often was set in Chicago's North Shore.”

Other recent projects Nancy has donated to include the John & Nancy Hughes Clubhouse at the Deerpath Golf Course and investment in Sibylle and Robert Redford's production The Way of the Rain at Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods. 

On Sept. 14, the day before she died, Lake Forest residents gathered for the dedication of the Hughes Gateway at Forest Park Beach, rebuilt with Nancy's assistance after flooding destroyed the previous entrance. The site is just blocks from her former home on Westminster Avenue, which she donated to Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital in 2014. The home was where her family had lived from 1988–2009, and where her husband wrote “Home Alone.”

Nancy is survived by her son John III, daughter-in-law Ruta, and grandchildren Katelyn, Wil, and Livia; son James, daughter-in-law Tracy, and grandson Henry. Services were held in Lake Forest on Sept. 21, and Nancy was laid to rest at Lake Forest Cemetery, beside John.