‘Boxes:’ The Secret life of Howard Hughes

Published 3:01 pm Friday, August 6, 2010

Mark Musick stood barefooted on the sands of Navarre Beach and returned a man for eternity to a place along the Gulf Coast that had given him so much joy.

Verner Nicely’s widow stood quietly watching as Musick distributed her husband’s ashes over the waves of the Gulf waters.

The ritual was a spiritual and moving moment for Musick. And that was unexpected.

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He didn’t know Nicely and had only known his wife for a short time. He met Eva McLelland Nicely when he was working in Dothan for a non-profit organization to which she had made a land donation. But he was the one she chose to “distribute” her husband’s ashes.

“It took about 15 minutes to dissimulate the ashes except for the few she had asked me to save,” he said. “We put our shoes back on and went to the car and headed back to Alabama.”

McLelland was quiet for a while but Musick said that was understandable. “It was an emotional time.”

“When she spoke, Eva told me that she had been keeping a secret for a long time and needed to confide in someone. ‘I would like to tell it to you,’ she said.”

What McLelland confided in Musick was “shocking.”

“She said that the ashes were those of her husband but he was not Verner Nicely,” Musick said. “I asked her who he was and she said, ‘I was married to Howard Hughes.’ I said, ‘You don’t mean the Howard Hughes? … Eva, he died 25 years ago.’ She said that’s what everybody was supposed to think.”

Musick said he was honest with McLelland and told her what she said was hard to believe.

“She told me that she had asked her husband of 31 years, ‘Howard Hughes,’ if people would ever believe her story and he told her that, no they never would,” Musick said.

For a while Musick was skeptical – almost to the point of unbelieving – of Eva McLelland’s story but he was also curious. So much so that he listened to her story over and over and painstakingly researched the life and times of Howard Hughes.

“The pieces started to fit,” he said. “Things just started to fall into place and it started to make sense. Never did Eva change her stories about her life with ‘Howard Hughes. The dates coincided with everything she was telling and the story began to be believable. It’s a wild story but, after seven years of research, I have no doubt that what Eva told me is true – that her husband was Howard Hughes – the Howard Hughes.”

Musick’s belief in Eva’s story is founded in the years of research that began soon after he spread her husband’s ashes in 2002. He has left no stones unturned in an effort to substantiate her claim that Verner Nicely (Nik) was in reality billionaire aviator and industrialist Howard Hughes, Jr.

Musick was so convinced of the “truthfulness” of Eva McLelland’s story that he worked with writer, Douglas Wellman, assistant dean of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, to tell Eva’s story. Wellman’s recently published book, “Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes” is being dismissed as a fabrication by some, a possibility by others and a probability by some closest to the couple.

Eva’s claim was that Hughes had assumed the identity of Verner Nicely who disappeared while working with the CIA in Panama in the late 1960s. “Nik” and Eva married in the Canal Zone in 1970. The longhaired, bearded, emaciated, reclusive Howard Hughes was actually a stand-in who was either mentally ill or addicted to drugs. When he died in 1976, the Hughes’ will was challenged and awarded to 22 relatives. The couple lived a meager existence during much of their 31-year marriage. From 1988 until 1999, Nik and Eva lived in the Goshen area of Pike County.

Probably no one knew him or her as well as Dewayne Henderson of Banks. For years, he played a dual role as the grocery boy and a trusted friend.

Henderson was working as an assistant market manager in Troy when he first met Eva McLelland.

“The manager asked me if I would deliver some groceries to an elderly lady who didn’t have a way to come to Troy,” Henderson said. “I thought it would be just one trip but I delivered groceries to ‘the ranch’ about once a month for several years.”

At the time, Henderson said he didn’t think it was strange that McLelland asked him to call each time before he came.

“One time I forgot to call and was already on the way when I thought about it,” Henderson said. “I decided to just go on. That’s when I saw Mr. Nik for the first time. When I pulled up, he walked into the woods. That was the first time I knew that Eva had a husband.”

For some time after that, Nicely would hide in the woods when Henderson made his deliveries, which were also visits to the elderly lady.

“After a while, he started to warm up to me, and I realized how intelligent he was,” Henderson said. “I’ve never known anyone who was as smart at Mr. Nik. He was smart about everything.”

Nicely told Henderson that he was an engineer and also an aviator. Eva McLelland was an intelligent woman who was an accomplished and dedicated poet.

“They didn’t have a television and were a bit paranoid,” Henderson said. “They thought that their telephone was bugged and helicopters were flying over watching them. They didn’t want to go out in public, very eccentric. He spent a lot of time in the woods, sometimes without clothes. And he was so afraid of germs that he wore gloves a lot of the time.”

When Nicely got “in bad shape” with skin cancer, Henderson drove him to the VA hospital in Montgomery. There he was measured at six feet.

His height was a fact that caught Henderson’s attention when he read the book “Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes.”

“When I read the book, a lot of things started to make sense,” Henderson said. “Verner Nicely was only 5’11’’ while Howard Hughes was nearly 6’4”. As we get older, we lose height, not gain it. So that made me think that maybe?”

Henderson said he’s not ready to say that Nicely was Howard Hughes but then there is the possibility.

“I don’t know either way but I do believe that Eva thought her husband was Howard Hughes,” he said. “Maybe, Mr. Nik was playing mind games with her. They were both eccentric so that’s possible. But then Eva was a smart lady. I just don’t know.”

The couple spent several months at Whittington Manor in Brundidge before moving to Dothan around 2000.

Cathie Steed, who with her husband, Johnny Steed, owned and operated the domiciliary, said the book fascinated her.

“They were both very intelligent,” Cathie Steed said.

“Mr. Nicely was knowledgeable about everything, especially aviation. There are some things in the book that make me think that this could be true but really I don’t think it is. I’ve got too many questions. But, it makes for some very interesting reading.”

Eva McLelland died in 2009 at the age of 93.

Those who knew her and her husband should find “Boxes” interesting reading and a startling beginning to a story with possibly no ending.