That phrase is written on a note placed outside the office window of Lower Merion High School Principal Sean Hughes.
Students said that was the motto of the principal they affectionately called "Huuuuuuughes."
"The 'character counts' thing, that was his motto and he really lived by that. He saw everyone for who they were and the good in them," said Lower Merion High 2018 graduate Jack Stickney.
District officials said Hughes, a principal in the Lower Merion School District for the past 14 years, was killed in a crash Saturday while taking his son Nolan to a soccer game in Winslow Township, New Jersey.
The 51-year-old is survived by his wife, Kristi, two sons, Nolan and Jack, and daughter, Kate.
On Monday, the student body gathered outside the high school, which was closed alongside the rest of the schools in the district in memory of Hughes.
"The school has just, really lost its light," said one student.
"'I'd see him at every single one of my games -- games three hours away-- and he'd be there cheering us on," said junior Jaden Mayer.
"In the hallways, he brightened up the whole hallway with a smile. Even with a mask on you could see the smile he portrayed throughout," added classmate Felix Morales
Closures & Postponements
All 10 schools in the Lower Merion School District were closed Monday in memory of Hughes.
The COVID-19 vaccination clinic for kids aged 5 to 11 scheduled for Monday at Lower Merion High School was also postponed.
"Thank you to all our families and community for your support and patience as our District processes the tragic news concerning Lower Merion High School principal, Mr. Sean Hughes. While many of K-6 families may not have encountered Mr. Hughes yet in their children's educational careers, please know that staff at all levels of our District considered him a friend, mentor and exemplary leader," the district said in an update on its website.
The clinic will be rescheduled for Monday, November 22, 2021.
Monday's school board meeting is also postponed. The meeting will reconvene on Monday, November 22 at 8 p.m.
Students & Parents React
Over the weekend, alumni, students, parents, fellow educators, and the entire community shared their memories of Hughes and spoke about what the principal meant to them.
"He was always down for a laugh and a good time, which was pretty special," Jack Stickney said.
"Our four years at Lower Merion have been filled with such tragedy, with Kobe Bryant's passing and COVID and now this, and we were really looking forward to having him see us grow up after all that," senior Sophia Kagan said.
"It's such a terrible tragedy. He was such a public figure around these parts and very much beloved," parent Bruce Dizengoff said.
"It's really sad. It's just sad. No one deserves to leave this world this early, and when you touched so many people and so many people are dependent on you," parent Cindy Rothman said.
"There's a big hole that's being left not just at the Lower Merion High School community, but all of Lower Merion," parent Bill Hillman said.
The crash happened around 7:30 a.m. Saturday at Fleming Pike and Hay Road in Winslow Township, New Jersey.
Police said Hughes was driving north on Fleming Pike in a silver Ford SUV. At the same time, a black Mercedes Benz was traveling east on Hay Road.
Both vehicles collided in the middle of the intersection and suffered extensive damage, police said.
Hughes, his 13-year-old son Nolan and the 54-year-old driver of the Mercedes were taken to area hospitals.
Hughes died of his injuries at the hospital.
The crash remains under investigation by Winslow Township Police Department's Highway Safety Unit.
Basketball Team's Tribute
The Lower Merion Aces basketball team posted a tribute Saturday night to their principal with a caption reading "Devastated."
The message read, in part:
"He was our principal, yes. But he was so much more than that. Our most loyal friend. Our biggest cheerleader. Our partner in crime.
"Huuuughes was the ultimate Ace.
"'Character counts' wasn't just a slogan, it was what he lived and modeled every day -- as an educator, a leader, and a husband and father. Through every challenge and tragedy, in our greatest moments of joy and achievement, and especially in those small moments when it shouldn't have mattered at all, Mr. Hughes was there. With a hug, a high-five, or a knowing smile...
"Hughes understood what being a high school kid was like. He believed in rules, but also understood reality. Skipping school for that once-in-a-lifetime World Series parade was technically a cut, but Hughes winked at you on the way out the door and told you to have fun. He trusted you'd generally make the right decision, and in return, you respected and trusted him.
"He just got it..."
Honoring the Legacy of Mr. Hughes
The impact of Sean Hughes' kindness and leadership is being felt throughout Lower Merion including in the district's other high school, Harriton High.
The school's newspaper, the Harriton Banner, published an article, "Honoring the legacy of Mr. Hughes." It was written by the paper's editors Ishika Vyas and Anna Welsh.
It read in part:
"The impact that Mr. Hughes had on our community was profound and powerful. Our hearts go out to the entire Lower Merion School District community as they grieve and remember his legacy. We especially have his family, Kristi, Nolan, Jack, and Kate, in our hearts and minds as they remember their husband/father for the incredible man he was.
"The school he shaped, the community he built, the faculty he led, and the students he welcomed will never forget him for the valuable contributions he has made over the past 14 years. He was an incredibly invaluable part of Lower Merion and he will be so missed.
"As you reflect and grieve, keep in mind that the Lower Merion community is here to support you during this time. If you are having difficulty processing this information, please reach out to the support counselors at Harriton."
Central Athletic League
In addition to being Lower Merion High principal, Hughes also served as President of the Central Athletic League.
Several school districts in the league have sent out their condolences to the Lower Merion community.
"SSD's heart breaks for the Hughes family and the Lower Merion School District. Sean was the principal of LMHS. Unfortunately, he passed away earlier today. Rest In Peace, Sean. We are here for the LM community," Springfield School District in Delaware County said.
"Garnet Valley School District extends our deepest condolences for the Hughes family and the Lower Merion School District," Garnet Valley School District said.
In response to the tragedy, Lower Merion Superintendent of Schools Dr. Khalid N. Mumin issued a statement that read in part:
"Mr. Hughes was beloved by thousands of students who passed through the halls of Lower Merion over the years. He knew most of them by name and always had time to listen to their concerns, cheer them on and support their accomplishments. They greeted him in the halls by calling out his signature nickname, "Huuuuuuughes." He welcomed each one at 9th grade orientation and proudly handed out diplomas at their graduations. In the years between, he MC'ed their Amazing Ace competitions in his gold sequined jacket, inducted students into the National Honor Society and recognized Merit Scholars. He encouraged student voice at every turn, the door to his office was always open, and I know that many will carry his message of "character counts" throughout their lives. It is not an overstatement to say his impact on his students is immeasurable.
"The staff at Lower Merion High School, and throughout the District, were Mr. Hughes's extended family. Everyone is shocked and heartbroken. It is hard for anyone to imagine Lower Merion High School without Mr. Hughes at the helm. Other administrators from throughout the District will support LM's assistant principals and staff in the coming weeks to ensure that students continue to be supported and served."
School Name Petition
A Change.org petition is hoping Lower Merion School District's new middle school will be renamed in Mr. Hughes' honor.
As of Monday morning, it had over 5,000 signatures.
"If he had been just a principal to us we would be able to think of his family, wish them the best and move on," the petition reads.
"But he was more than that.
"We all want his memory to live on forever. With the new middle school opening in the fall we can think of no better way to honor such an important man in our lives than to name the new middle school 'Sean Hughes Memorial Middle School.'"
Though the petition is gaining attention, Amy Buckman, LMSD Director of School and Community Relations, explained that district policy prohibits naming buildings for people. She said the board already approved the name Black Rock Middle School.
Buckman added that "the board and the administration will work with the Hughes family and with students for an appropriate way to memorialize Mr. Hughes as the dedicated high school educator and LM Ace that he was."
In His Own Words
The best summation of his legacy is in Hughes' own words found on the district website.
It read in part, "Throughout my career at Lower Merion it has been our goal to help all students perform at their personal best and to feel connected to the positive experiences of this wonderful high school. I know firsthand that a successful school experience can build skills and confidence for future opportunities of personal and professional growth...
"Our message to students is straightforward: be on time and arrive ready to learn every day, develop good study and organizational habits, ask questions, address concerns earlier rather than later, and challenge yourself to do your best in every class you take. Most importantly, be a person of high character. Good things happen to people who treat others with dignity and respect, who work hard and are appreciative of the opportunities afforded to them."