By Rennie Dyball
August 24, 2009 12:00 PM

Every Fourth of July, John Hughes loved to put on a show. From behind the lush shrubs and trees enclosing his Harvard, Ill., farm, the director—briefly breaking from his reclusiveness—would create a huge fireworks display for his neighbors, who sat outside their homes in awe. “It was grander than the Chicago show,” says Harvard resident Sylvia Daletski. “Like a Hollywood production.”

Hughes—who died on Aug. 6 of a heart attack at age 59 in Manhattan—hadn’t made a movie in years, but he still knew how to captivate audiences. As one of the 1980s’ most influential filmmakers, Hughes crafted hit after coming-of-age hit, including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, forever defining what it meant to be a teen in suburbia. “He knew teenagers like no other because he was one himself,” says Kelly LeBrock, star of his 1985 comedy Weird Science. “He was always running around with high-top sneakers with no laces in them because he’d never tie them.” Curly Sue‘s Alisan Porter remembers Hughes doing more than acting like an overgrown kid. During an audition of some high-profile actresses to costar with her, “John asked me, ‘Okay, who do you like best, kid?'” recalls Porter. “I was 9!” Hughes, who also wrote the Home Alone trilogy, even became pen pals with one young fan, Alison Byrne Fields, sending stories of movie sets while she wrote to him about high school and boys. On the day he died, Fields shared one of Hughes’ letters on her blog. “I can’t tell you how much I like your comments about my movies,” he wrote. “Nor can I tell you how helpful they are to me for future projects. I listen … I make these movies for you.”

Hughes never cared much for Hollywood, leaving it behind in the ’90s for the Midwest, where he set many of his films. Away from showbiz, the director (survived by his wife of 39 years, Nancy, two sons and four grandkids) did what many of his movie’s grownups didn’t—spent time with his kids. While filming Pretty in Pink, “he’d invite me over to the house and they’d all be jumping around the pool,” James Spader tells PEOPLE. “He protected them, and I think that’s why he left Hollywood,” adds LeBrock. “He struck a chord with a generation because his movies are about friendships and family. That’s why they’ll stand the test of time.”