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Old Lions Department: Historian Vaughn Bornet, at 100 Years Old

Vaughn Bornet at his 100th Birthday Celebration

The 100-year old historian stood up at the podium at the Rotary Club of Ashland, a local organization in Oregon. The occasion: his own special birthday celebration. The question on his mind and on the minds of those in attendance, he promptly addressed: “So, what does it feel like to turn 100? Is it such a big deal or just another event in one’s longer life?” 

Vaughn Davis Bornet feels like the world overreacts to his longevity. “How did you do it? How did you pull it off? How come, exactly, are you still with us? Dumb luck? Skill? Good doctors? What do you eat?” After recounting various stories of note that occurred throughout his long life, Vaughn insists there wasn’t anything particularly special about him “living obscurely but attentively to 100.”

“You just have to outwit those awful things that want to kill you! And—there are such things,” he said. He spoke about some close encounters with the man upstairs, like in 1936, when he was being initiated into a fraternity, he passed out cold, thudding to the floor, or in 1949, when an examiner at Stanford University—where he later received his Ph.D. in history—told him “take the test again later on,” and he fell unconscious in front of his desk. In 1977, a part of his heart failed. 

In the 1990s, while driving with his wife in their Oldsmobile at over 70 mph on a major roadway, he fell asleep at the wheel and they crashed into a ditch, surviving a close call. He said, jokingly, that since they were on their way to the airport on a flight to the Volga River, he’d tell people with a laugh, “Don’t ever try to drive to Russia; it’s not the best way to get there.”

Over a decade ago, he got the first of three pacemakers and mused about how he “survived many tilt-table tests, naked.” In 2015, he incurred a horrible left leg injury that had him on his back and in a wheelchair for four months. Somehow, he said, “I survived every mishap.”

The late Thomas Clark, Historian Laureate of Kentucky, who lived to 101, often referred to as the “Dean of Historians,” said in a 2004 interview that his secret to longevity was “good ancestral genes,” as well as good luck, moderate food consumption, no tobacco and alcohol, and a well-disciplined work life. 

The oldest living undergraduate alumnus of Emory University, Vaughn lives “apparently only semi-retired, in Ashland, Oregon,” as his biography line usually says at the top of the articles he writes. (Click here for a list of the pieces he’s written for HNN over the years.)

In October of this year, Vaughn self published his latest book, Seeking New Knowledge: A Research Historian’s Rewarding Career, and before that, in 2016, Lovers in Wartime, 1944 to 1945, and Happy Travel Diaries, 1925 to 1933. He wrote an autobiography in 1995, An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America, which was written in the third person. 

When first establishing contact with Vaughn, the still-active historian and writer said in an email: “First off, let me say that people could reach me if they wish - but few do or want to.”

This was surprising considering Vaughn’s attractive sense of humor. The beginning of an article he wrote reads: “Even though knowing I would eventually be aging, I paid little attention and made few preparations. ‘It’s just another annoyance,’ said I. That was true as I hit 70. Still true at 80. I did notice 85 but did little. Oh, visits to a cardiologist reminded one that time was passing, and so were the trips to the hospital blood people to get my cholesterol numbers. That pacemaker couldn’t be ignored.” He manages to bring out light humor in serious situations, like transitioning into a retirement home and grappling with the physical ailments that come with old age.

In his article, “This Is What It's Like When You're Living in an Old Folks' Home (It Could Easily Be Worse)”, Vaughn shared a story of another very elderly scholar he knew of:

For those now living an institutionalized life, with or without care, still continent or unavoidably anything but, vast numbers are daily users of four wheel strollers or motorized vehicles, small wheeled strollers, wheelchairs, or wobbly old legs and canes. Still: walking unassisted or aided, it’s a Life. No matter what, a growing handful of our old folks are going to live pleasantly enough from, say, 90 to noticeably over 100. I just learned of one scholar who lives in a ten story deluxe locale, hale and hearty—above the waist, anyway—at 107. (Once he edited an encyclopedia; now he does the institution newsletter.)

While pointing out specifically geriatric humor isn’t my intent, there was one joke that emerged from my conversation with Vaughn. I asked what indispensable tool he used throughout his career that helped him most of all, and he replied “patience, Royal Portable typewriter, front door key, car key, wallet – empty or full, anatomical parts: brain, feet, hands, unmentionables.”

He told me about one of the best days he could remember in his life: “Best day: I got a call from my wife in our Santa Monica home, I was at the RAND Corporation. She said “Your book is here!” It was 1960 and the book we were expecting was Welfare in Americafrom the University of Oklahoma Press, which I had worked on all of 1957 and off and on ever since. I left RAND and drove home. We hovered over the package and opened it. We both were breathing heavily and thrilled. Inside was five copies of someone’s book on the Civil War! End of ‘Best Day.’ ”

Born in 1917, Vaughn served in the Navy as an officer during World War II, had a long career as a writer and researcher, and became a professor emeritus of history and social science at Southern Oregon State College, authoring works on the presidencies of Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson, as well as studies of the U.S. welfare system. He worked under the employ of organizations like the RAND Corporation, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the American Medical Association. He met his wife Beth in 1944, they had two children, and were married for 68 years. 

“Of all the events in world history, which one comes to mind now as one of the most important, intellectually stimulating, eternally relevant events?” I asked. He replied: “Events: ascendency of Jesus, death of Lincoln, good health of Jefferson, use of those atomic weapons and ensuing introspection. Successful invention of vaccinations, discovery of land by Columbus, signing at Appomattox, something Edison or Bell did, 1920 - women got to vote, 1933 - prohibition ended, early afternoon, EST Dec. 7, 1941. For me personally, poking the end of a wire into a crystal and hearing a voice (about 1926).”

On what continues to drive him today, Vaughn said, with characteristically dry humor, “Caregivers, relatives and best friends since I don’t have a car.” 

He pointed out that “there’s not much funny about old age, and history appears to have taken a turn for the worse; still, all is not lost. One is tempted to say: ‘as long as there are pacemakers (I’ve had three), there will be historians.’ ”