The public has long held a fascination with the late Howard Hughes, the enigmatic billionaire who rose to prominence as an inventor, aviator and Hollywood movie producer before slipping into a life as an eccentric, obsessive-compulsive recluse.
But to one Enumclaw resident, he was simply Mr. Hughes, the boss who had specific desires and wanted them fulfilled.
Paul Williams spent more than 28 years with Hughes Electronics and, during the first half of his tenure with the California company, became one of Hughes’ favorites – an employee who could tackle special projects and make the boss happy.
These days, Williams lives at High Pointe Village where he recently celebrated turning 101. Daughters Jackie McDonnell and Ginger Vail live in Enumclaw, his granddaughter Jeanne Taupin lives just a block or so away and so do great-grandchildren Emma and Alex.
Williams and his wife LaRue, who died four years ago, moved to Enumclaw two decades ago and settled into a home on Harding Street.
He’s been retired for 38 years – more years than he spent working for Hughes Electronics – but he still likes to tell stories of the boss and his special requests. Williams was on Hughes’ payroll during the halcyon days, before his idiosyncrasies elevated into a mental disorder that caused Hughes to disappear from public life.
“I would be in my office working on regular things,” Williams recalls, when the phone would ring. Hughes would have a special request and Williams was expected to respond.
Williams had a knack for telephones and Hughes knew it.
“I’d go by my boss’s office and say ‘I’ll see you in a day or two,’” Williams said.
He recalls a conversation in Hughes’ Beverly Hills penthouse. Telephones at the time were stationary things, but Hughes wanted the freedom to move about.
“I went back to the plant where I had a drafting board and designed what he wanted,” Williams said. The result was a hand-held box housing a couple of telephones, with a cord almost 30 feet long that provided Hughes the freedom he wanted.
Williams remembers ordering that the handle be made of stainless steel – the better to keep free of germs. Hughes was already a germophobe, beginning to show signs of mental instability, Williams said.
Specializing in radio systems, Williams was on the grounds during the building of the so-called Spruce Goose, the all-wood aircraft that never was delivered to the Department of Defense and, in fact, made just one solo flight with Hughes at the controls.
“I used to go out there pretty near every day,” Williams remembers. “I’d walk out there to see what they were doing.”
In charge of Hughes’ radio systems throughout the Long Beach, Calif., area, Williams’ duty was to oversee the radio workings of the Spruce Goose. But that didn’t land him a seat on the aircraft that captured public attention. When Hughes made his one and only flight in November 1947, Williams’ boss commandeered a seat on the plane.
The Great Depression put a halt to Williams’ college education. “I learned a little bit here and a little bit there,” he said, eventually gaining the expertise that led to lifetime employment. His interest in radio communication began in his pre-teen years, when he built a ham radio unit.
Aside from working for Hughes, Williams spent time with the city of San Diego, putting together a two-way radio system for the city’s police department. At the time, he said, it was the largest system of its kind in the world.
“I learned several trades,” he said, the first being carpentry, a skill passed down from his father.
“I decided it was unproductive,” he said, recalling a salary of $4.62 per day, “so I became an electrician.”
That sufficed for a time, “but the radios were more interesting to me.”
They still are.
Williams’ room at Highpoint Village is equipped with a ham radio and he’s a member of a Maple Valley group of radio enthusiasts. With the help of son-in-law Larry, Williams attends the group’s monthly meetings and every Thursday night he checks in with the group, using the same call letters he was assigned in 1931.