Posted: Oct. 11, 2007
STATE SEN. JAMES T. VAUGHN SR., 1925-2007
By Celia Cohen
No one was going to tell James. T. Vaughn Sr. when he ought to leave the state Senate, not even the Grim Reaper.
Jim Vaughn feared no evil. He handled his resignation his way. Two weeks ago he turned it in, preparing for an orderly transition for a new legislator in the district he represented for 27 years, taking care of his constituents in his last public act.
He died Wednesday from complications of throat cancer and pneumonia at the age of 82, completing a lifetime of duty that took him from the Marines to the state police to the Smyrna police chief to the state corrections commissioner to the state Senate.
The Delaware and U.S. flags are lowered to half-staff in memory and mourning.
The election to replace him already has been set for Saturday, Nov. 3, between Democrat Bruce C. Ennis, a state representative who is running with Vaughn's endorsement, and Republican Joanne M. Christian, the Appoquinimink school board president who is cross-filed with the Independent Party of Delaware.
Vaughn was as unquestionable as a drill sergeant and as unbending in his beliefs as a small Southern town. He was a stickler on the budget and grim on anything liberal. He could be profanely funny, and his idea of recreation was the Clayton Tavern, blocks away from his home.
Vaughn was such a presence that he was re-elected last year without campaigning outside his house, his illness shackling him there, but the voters gambled on him, anyway, not only for what he did as a legislator but as a longtime patron of the community, particularly the Smyrna-Clayton Little League. He remained a force in the Senate without attending even one day of the 2007 session.
Vaughn was part of the ruling Democratic triumvirate in the chamber, along with Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., a Sussex County Democrat who is the president pro tem, and Sen. Nancy W. Cook, a Kent County Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee.
They functioned with Adams as the chief, Cook as the relentless energy and Vaughn as the formidable anchor, the stopper who employed his authority as a committee chair to lock away unwanted bills.
Together they provided a final, insurmountable power base for the diminishing breed of downstate conservative Democrats who once seemed to run everything but have given way to suburbanized New Castle County. Although Vaughn's district trickled upstate from Kent County with three-quarters of its voters living in New Castle County, he was a Kent County lifer and proud of it.
"The state has lost one of the greatest, most conscientious legislators it has ever known," Adams said. "You don't know how sad I am. He was one of my closest friends, and I'm going to miss him so much."
There is no sugarcoating Jim Vaughn. He would have hated it, anyway. He spent his early manhood in the realms of deadly force, and it left him comfortable with the use of legislative power, so much more civilized.
He never apologized for his understanding of what the law was. It was whatever got 11 votes in the 21-member Senate or whatever the police said it was.
There was one time an insurance broker in Delaware City ran afoul of his insurance company after affiliating with it for 49 and a half years. His transgression was allowing his wife to have a small real estate and insurance office in the same building, a setup viewed by the insurance company as a violation of a non-compete clause in the broker's contract, and it wanted to shut him down, six months from his gold watch.
The plight of the broker, a Republican, was relayed to Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, and she contacted Vaughn. He never asked what the broker's party registration was in agreeing to help.
"We met for lunch in Delaware City, and Vaughn said in his best twang, 'Priscilla, you and me are a team, and we'll take care of this,'" Rakestraw said.
With an official from the Small Business Administration added for more heft, Vaughn and Rakestraw met with executives from the insurance company, and Vaughn threatened them with punitive legislation. It made them realize that perhaps the problem would be solved if there were separate entrances for the broker's business and his wife's.
"Jim Vaughn was implacable. He sat there like a Buddha. He said, 'Gentlemen, this is not going to happen.' The insurance company buckled, and six months later, the broker got his gold watch," Rakestraw said.
There was another time that Smyrna was having a parade and festival with Vaughn participating as a judge for a pig-racing contest. It was a very hot summer day, and John J. "Jack" Schreppler II, a lawyer best known as the self-styled grand marshal-for-life of the New Year Hummers Parade in Middletown, had parked himself under a shady tree with a cooler of beer.
Schreppler invited Vaughn to join him, and they were taking their ease when a young police officer approached. Vaughn was facing away, so the officer spoke to Schreppler and asked him to pour out his beer because the festival was a non-alcoholic event.
"I said OK. With that, Jim Vaughn turned around and said to the young police officer, 'This is ginger ale,'" Schreppler said.
Vaughn was a legend. The officer did what he had to do. He spoke up promptly.
"Yes, sir, it is. Enjoy your ginger ale."