One day in November, 1963, Roger Vaughan heard an unusual series of dings outside his cubicle of an office at Saturday Evening Post headquarters in Philadelphia. One-thirty or two in the afternoon, an “absolutely do not disturb” meeting underway in the managing editor’s office down the empty hallway, and the dinging persisted.
“It was the Associated Press machine. Whenever a news item came in it sounded a couple of dings. If it was a bigger story, a few more dings. But In this case the dinging just kept going off,” remembers Vaughan.
He picked up the narrow strip of yellow paper with a single line of typing streaming out of the machine, spilling onto the floor: “The president has been shot in Dallas.”
Vaughan knew the story was bigger than the do-not-disturb edict. Hustling down the hallway, he opened the door to the editor’s office, saw the look of a man about to bite his head off, spurted out the news, and then found himself gathering up the tools of his dawning journalistic trade and boarding the next plane to Dallas to get the story.
“I was in the police station when Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated John F. Kennedy,” said Vaughan. “I didn’t see the shot but I definitely heard it.” Moments like these seer into the minds of journalists and writers, by nature keen observers.
At 26 and electrified, listening, questioning, heading into the eye of history’s storm to report and write, Vaughan felt the unique sensation that set its hook firmly and has never let him go.
“I’ve never done anything as satisfying as writing,” he said in a recent interview.
Vaughan will share stories like these and many more when he takes to a TV studio-like stage on the patio of the Oxford Community Center at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28. His friend and sailing associate Tot O’Mara will play the interviewing role. The two long-time Oxford residents – O’Mara lifelong and Vaughan 41 years – promise an entertaining session with a good sound system.
“I did a couple of Zoom interviews during the pandemic about a recent book I wrote on the 2010 America’s Cup, when two catamarans squared off against each other for the first time. It’s called Learning To Fly. I found the interview format one that I could understand.”
Vaughan plans to share his perspectives on what writing is all about and aspects of “the eccentric life I’ve managed to have.”
Over the many decades since his flight to Dallas, Vaughan has inserted himself into history’s excitement to cultivate the difficult career he carved out for himself as journalist, novelist, documentarian and screenwriter. “I probably couldn’t do it again,” he said. “So much has changed with social media. Everybody’s writing now, nobody’s reading. But I’ve always had to write. Who knows what bad things I might have done if I didn’t have writing? It’s a great outlet – better than a psychiatrist. I think it was Joe Cocker who said that if he couldn’t sing, he probably would have killed somebody.”
Vaughan has constantly collected material along the way; enough to fill 18 published books – fiction and non-fiction – countless magazine interviews and newspaper articles, screenplays and television docudramas. The wisdom he has acquired along the way, he says, is a compilation of what he has learned from the many accomplished people he has interviewed and reported on.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have been with these people I write about.”
After sailing dinghies competitively with Ted Turner while both were students at Brown, Vaughan later called his college friend and began orbiting the media magnate as he climbed into sailing’s most competitive ranks on his way to an America’s Cup victory. “I spent a lot of time with him. I’ve never known a person who could be such a complete jerk and then, a few minutes later, become a brilliant genius.”
A docudrama he has written called The Man Behind The Mouth focuses on Turner’s exploits along with sailing guru Gary Jobson. “Jobson was the man behind the mouth, Turner’s mouth,” said Vaughan. “Turner wouldn’t have won the America’s Cup without him. The question was could Jobson weather Turner’s fame. He was outrageous, always in your face, a big womanizer. Could Jobson survive being attached to Turner’s personality?”
Big, big egos.
Vaughan found famed Berlin Philharmonic conductor and music director Herbert von Karajan a member of the same club. “I’ve never seen such ego. He told me that he didn’t drive a Porsche because it was a great car. It was a great car because he owned one.”
Ukrainian sailor and coach Victor Kovalenko, now head coach of the Australian Olympic sailing team, is another larger-than-life figure Vaughan has spent time with, written about and learned from.
“His sailing teams have won more gold medals than any other sailing teams in history. He believes that to excel at sport, you have to excel at life. He always tries to get the best out of his sailors.
“One Olympic sailor he coaches told me about a day he was having a bad regatta – an 18th and a 12th. He was feeling down, feeling badly. He spoke with Kovalenko. The coach told him: ‘You mustn’t forget how good you are.’ That turned him around. I keep that on a sticky note on my computer. It’s a useful thing to remember.
“Kovalenko believes that smoothing out the rest of your life will help in sports. Sailors may reach a high level of physical performance, balance, boat skills and diet but leaving wife, kids and friends behind to become an Olympic sailor is not a good way to proceed. He really is a life coach with a specialty in sailing.”
Now having downsized from Oxford to a smaller home in Easton, Vaughan considers himself lucky to be living through the times that he is. He started his literary career during the great social, cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s: A time when sex, drugs and rock and roll erupted through the Earth’s cultural crust, when touring with and writing about Bob Dylan eventually led Vaughan to settle on the Eastern Shore with his wife Kip Requardt in the home of a close friend who attended University of Virginia with Dylan, and a time when Timothy Leary’s concert-like events touting psychedelics enabled Vaughan to write an unpublished book – “we all have them” – about California’s Silicon Valley including how the hallucinogen psilocybin seeped into the Stanford University curriculum.
At 84 and counting, Vaughan continues to follow the passion that gives him so much satisfaction. “I’ve produced a lot lately. The Turner and Jobson docudrama and a full script for an Aaron Burr television docudrama. And I’ve just had a novel published called Coming About. It’s available on Amazon. Fiction. It first appeared as a month-by-month serial in the Tidewater Times. Dickens and Mailer did serials. That seemed like a pretty hot shit thing to do. Took me 21 episodes to complete. Three thousand to four thousand words per episode.
“Focuses on a kid struggling with his identity and an around-the-world sailing race forced on him by his father. I’m told it’s a pretty quick read. There’s love interest, some pretty bad people and intense blue water sailing.”
If that weren’t enough, Vaughan also has a memoir in the works. “It’s a little too much. I guess I shouldn’t have done so much. But I think I’ll do the memoir as a novel, a little on the inventive side. I think that’s OK, as long as it’s not too outrageous, as long as it’s something that could have happened.”
Some call that artistic license.
Vaughan went into dark mode when commenting on the immediate times in which we find ourselves.
“It’s like a big cloud over my head every single morning. What bad news will there be today? You don’t think it can get any worse and it does. But I have to keep up; it’s what I do. I read and read and analyze and assess. I don’t get how people can think there are your facts and there are my facts. Sometimes I think human nature is close to the end. Climate change, wildfires, stronger and stronger storms. Very scary. Man is truly a self-destructive being.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 28th at 5:30pm, The Oxford Community Center is set to transform the side patio into a TV talk show set to share a conversation with Tot O’Mara and Roger Vaughan with audiences. Bring your lawn-chair and a fleece, to enjoy this intimate chat with an amazing man, author, adventurer and neighbor. Beverages will be available for purchase. Please go here for ticket information.
Dennis Forney grew up on the Chester River in Chestertown. After graduating Oberlin College, he returned to the Shore where he wrote for the Queen Anne’s Record Observer, the Bay Times, the Star Democrat, and the Watermen’s Gazette. He moved to Lewes, Delaware in 1975 with his wife Becky where they lived for 45 years, raising their family and enjoying the saltwater life. Forney and Trish Vernon founded the Cape Gazette, a community newspaper serving eastern Sussex County, in 1993, where he served as publisher until 2020. He continues to write for the Cape Gazette as publisher emeritus and expanded his Delmarva footprint in 2020 with a move to Bozman in Talbot County.