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Sr. Sodelbia Hughes was born at the end of the 19th century. Later this month, in the 21st century, a bridge will be renamed in her honor.
Perhaps the timing is fitting for a woman who was 50 years ahead of her time, according to one of her colleagues, Sr. Kay Carlew.
“She was a teacher. She was a social worker, and she was a politician, in the best sense of the word,” Carlew said.
The official dedication ceremony for the Sister Sodelbia Hughes Memorial Bridge is scheduled for 7 p.m. July 14. The bridge on Hwy. 1183 connects Marion and Washington counties in the Manton community.
One of her former students, Frances Settles, said the bridge should have been named for Hughes years ago.
“Sodelbia was like a legend in Marion and Washington counties,” Settles said.
Hughes died in 1986, but her colleagues and her students still remember her fondly.
“She was probably one of the best teachers you’d ever find,” said Sr. Kay Carlew, who taught with Hughes at Manton. “She could teach first, second and third grade in one room, or she could teach college Latin.”
The Manton Public School had two classrooms and a cafeteria, and Hughes, a Sister of Loretto, was at the center of it throughout much of its life. She helped open the Manton school in 1925, and she was working there when it closed in 1970.
In all, she worked for 27 years at the school, twice leaving and both times returning to Manton, according to Carlew.
“Her only focus was to help others, whether it be in the classroom or to improve their lives,” Carlew said.
Carlew arrived in Manton in 1965, after Sr. Sodelbia’s bridge had already been constructed. Before the bridge was built, a heavy rain was enough to prevent a school bus from bringing children to school.
According to a written account by Sr. Mary Victor Bowling, Hughes “gave those Frankfort people no peace” as she lobbied for the bridge.
In the 1950s, then-Gov. Albert “Happy” Chandler “came to the Loretto Motherhouse, met Sister [Hughes], put his arm around her and turned to the highway director who was with him and said, ‘You do what Sister says,’” Bowling wrote.
Her students remember Hughes as a prim and proper individual and as a strict but caring teacher.
Lynn Johnson said Hughes wanted her students to speak up, and that included giving presentations to the class based on something they had read in the encyclopedias at the school.
“You either had to give a report or learn the Gettysburg Address. She encouraged you,” Johnson said.
Another student, Dennis Hagan, said he still remembers that the highest waterfall in the world is in Venezuela because of those reports.
By the time students left Manton they knew they left with a good education, according to Johnson.
“We were as prepared as any student around,” she said.
Carlew said she thought the school day lasted from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. when she taught with Hughes. After classes ended, they would go to meetings or visit students or find some other way to try to help the community.
Carlew recalled that only part of the road to the school was paved when she arrived at Manton. As road crews worked to pave the rest of the road, Carlew said Hughes made sure they thanked the construction workers at the end of the day.
“She wanted you to be grateful,” Carlew said.
Hagan also recalled one summer when the nuns hosted a summer camp at the Motherhouse. One day, Hughes showed up with an armful of nets and they went to the cabbage patch and caught butterflies, he said.
For years, Hagan said he thought that was just part of a lesson, but years later, Hughes told him the truth.
“It wasn’t biology. It was pest control,” he said.
Carlew and the students all said they remembered the turkey suppers, when they sometimes served 1,000 or more people to raise money for desks and other improvements at the school. While everyone helped in some way, Hughes was the driving force behind the dinners.
Johnson said Hughes loved the people of Manton, and they loved her back.
“Thank you so much, Sr. Sodelbia,” Settles said. “You might be gone, but you’re not forgotten.”