Janice Brown-Woods has lived in the Dallas area for many years. Now 56, she has raised a family and manages a team of computer engineers at IBM.
But on a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, she found herself on a small country road in her hometown of Brighton overseeing a passion project that could not be any more personal.
The story of how Brown-Woods ended up on Mathis Road began 9,870 miles away.
Army Sgt. John Albert Hughlett of Brighton was one of the first of the 1.35 million people who died in the Vietnam War. He lost his life in 1965. His father, Albert E. Hughlett, had been a sharecropper most of his life and still was when he found out his son had died.
When he and his wife, Jessie Mildred Hughlett, received money from the government as part of their son’s death benefit, a decision needed to be made. According to Brown-Woods, who was four at the time, Mrs. Hughlett had an idea that would change the course of a sharecropper’s family.
“She was good with money,” Brown-Woods says. “When a bill would come in the door, my mother would write a check and put it back in the mailbox the next day. She was very conscientious about that … It was mom’s idea to buy property.”
So that’s what they did.
The Hughletts bought a piece of land on Mathis Road and built a home for the family. A second house for the grandparents of Brown-Woods was constructed next door. The family of 12 lived in the house and started living the American dream of home ownership.
Tragedy struck less than two years later.
Brown-Woods remembers waking up in her bed in the middle of the night with a bunch of people standing in the doorway.
“That’s about it,” she says.
A gas leak of some sort began during the night and it claimed the lives of her father, her brother (Daniel) and two nephews (Calvin Hughlett and Ronnie Tipton). For reasons that are still not understood, the nine females in the four-room, 600-square-foot house all survived.
“It’s amazing because every one of us was in a room with one of the males who died,” Brown-Woods says. “There was only so much room in that house.”
Jessie Mildred Hughlett was devastated.
“Mother stayed in the hospital for weeks, maybe partly because of grief,” says Brown-Woods. “Somebody had to tell her that she lost a husband, a son and two grandchildren in this house.”
Mrs. Hughlett, who was 47, had never worked outside of the house, nor had she driven a car. Despite two tragedies within a 20-month span, she was forced to figure out how to support her six youngest daughters on her own.
She eventually found work at Bloomington Elementary School and later, when the school system desegregated, at Brighton Elementary and High schools as a cook. She was also a babysitter for McKenzie Huffman, the now 22-year-old daughter of County Executive Jeff Huffman.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever known a kinder, gentler, more noble and caring person than Mrs. Mildred Hughlett,” Jeff Huffman says.
He remembers “Miss Mil,” as she was often called, humming hymns to his daughter to put her to sleep.
“Young children were drawn to her,” he says. “I think because they could sense the goodness and genteel spirit in her … Whenever I talked to Miss Mil, regardless of how tough a day I had, I always walked away feeling better about myself and about how much good is in the world still. Miss Mil loved her family deeply and said many times how proud she was of her children.”
Despite being dealt a tough hand, Mildred Hughlett made it work. All nine of her daughters ended up going to college and several earned advanced degrees. Three still live in Tipton County. Three live in Texas, two in Kentucky and one in Nashville.
“Her greatest joy was that, out of these tragedies, she was able to nurture and set an exemplary example for her nine daughters,” Brown-Woods says.
Mildred Hughlett remained in her home until her death in 2013.
Around that time, the house, which was then almost 50 years old, began to need major repairs. That’s what brought Brown-Woods to Mathis Road earlier this week.
At first, the plan was to renovate the house. Brown-Woods enlisted the help of William Payne Jr., a homebuilder who grew up across the street from the Hughlett family. It was eventually determined that rebuilding would be more cost-effective. So that’s what they are doing.
Brown-Woods is paying to build a new house on the property. Payne is donating his services. Most of her sisters (she’s the second-youngest) are retired now and on fixed incomes, but they are going to help furnish the 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom home. Linda Hughlett, one of Brown-Woods’ sisters who lived with Mildred up until her death, will live in the house, which will serve as a gathering place for the entire family for holidays and other special occasions.
There are plans to dedicate the house in May when it’s finished and put a plaque on the house remembering the sacrifices that made it possible.
Brown-Woods said she plans on passing the property on to future generations.
“It will stay in the family,” she says. “When I pass it along to my kids, one of the things in my will be that you can’t sell it for any reason.”