Posted: Oct. 16, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The gathering Tuesday morning inside Asbury United Methodist Church in Smyrna looked like an assemblage turning out for the governor's "State of the State" address.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner was there, of course, along with the other state officials, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Treasurer Jack A. Markell, Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III and Insurance Commissioner Matthew P. Denn, her fellow Democrats, and Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr., the lone Republican.

There were lawmakers led by state Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Democratic president pro tem, and state Rep. Terry R. Spence, the Republican speaker. There were judges, Cabinet officers, lobbyists and legislative staff.

Hundreds of people were there. They were Delaware's version of the military's piercing "Missing Man Formation."

They were the regulars of Legislative Hall in Dover, and they came to say their last good-bye at the funeral of James T. Vaughn Sr., a Democratic state senator who died last Wednesday at 82 of complications from throat cancer and pneumonia.

A lot of state police were there, too, because Vaughn spent 20 years on the force, and also Corrections Department personnel, including Commissioner Carl C. Danberg, because Vaughn served as the corrections commissioner before he was elected to the state Senate in 1980.

It was a sendoff reserved for someone who leaves an indelible mark so distinct, it is hard to believe he is gone.

In this case it was even more so, because there was Vaughn's son, Superior Court President Judge James T. Vaughn Jr., the spitting image of spitting images, and because Vaughn Sr. was so worn down he never made it to the Senate this year, so people got used to accepting his absence as his presence.

"It is difficult to comprehend he is no longer with us. As long as we live, there will always be a feeling somehow that he is present," Vaughn Jr. said.

Vaughn Sr. did not suffer nonsense, usually profanely, and this memorial was as straightforward as he was, a brisk hour and not much more, although the language was considerably cleaner. It zeroed in on what was his essence -- his family, his long paternal care for the Smyrna-Clayton Little League and his legislative tenure as a stalwart of the downstate conservative Democrats.

The singing of "Amazing Grace" and "Song of Farewell" was performed by Lori Christiansen, an analyst from the Controller General's Office, a reminder of the dogged diligence that was the trademark of Vaughn's work on the state budget. Her solos were another reason the church seemed to resonate with Legislative Hall -- except this was Legislative Hall the way Vaughn would have run it, short and prompt.

It fell to Vaughn's old friend Thurman Adams to capture him. Adams did not so much eulogize Vaughn as tell the sort of stories that are told when the Senate session is over for the day and the regulars drift into Adams' office to unwind.

Adams and Vaughn went back together more than 40 years, to the days when Vaughn was a state trooper and Adams was a member of the Highway Commission, which was in charge of the state police before the Cabinet form of government came along in 1970. They did not get off on the right foot -- Vaughn told Adams, only three years younger, that he was not old enough to be a highway commissioner -- but they got over it.

As Adams explained, no one told Vaughn what to do, not presidents, not doctors, not Little Leaguers with a lot of lip.

When Lyndon Johnson came to Delaware, he let it be known he did not want the state police providing security, but the president had not counted on Vaughn as the trooper in charge. "I won't tell you exactly what Jim said," Adams said, "but he did say, he's going to have the state police whether he wants it or not."

A doctor came in for similar treatment. Vaughn was in the hospital when Adams was in line to become the Senate majority leader, and Vaughn wanted to be on hand to nominate him. The day before the election, Vaughn mentioned it to the doctor.

"The doctor said, 'I'll think about it and let you know tomorrow,' and Jim said, 'I've already made up my mind today,'" Adams said.

"Someone once said, a true friend is someone who is there when he's supposed to be someplace else. That's definitely Jim Vaughn."

Vaughn being Vaughn also was evident the day he was coaching a Little Leaguer. "The boy made the mistake of giving Jim some back talk, and Jim picked him up, walked over and threw him over the fence," Adams said.

"The father came along, and he was upset, and he walked over to Jim and started arguing, and Jim said to him, 'If you don't shut up, I'll throw you over the fence.'"

Vaughn's absence from Legislative Hall will continue to have a presence. He always took the same chair in Adams' office, and Adams has it draped in black and ordered a brass plaque for it in Vaughn's memory.

It is only fitting. Old senators never die. They just answer a different roll call.