FEBRUARY 6, 1932 – JANUARY 13, 2023 

A Life Well


by Sam Hendrix

J. T. Vaughan

“Respectfully, Yr humbl and obdt svt” 

Thing about it, he really WAS a humble and obedient servant. 

Dr. Vaughan’s Auburn roots run to his great-grandfather Adam Hardin, born 1800 in Georgia, in Auburn by 1850. Hardin’s daughter, Erin Iola Hardin, became Dr. Vaughan’s grandmother. Erin Hardin, born in Auburn November 18, 1855, in 1879 married a farmer and later drugstore operator from Tuskegee, Dr. Crawford M. Howard, who died in 1906. The future dean knew his grandmother growing up . . . she lived off-and-on with Dr. Vaughan’s family when he was a boy in Tuskegee until her death in 1944. Grandmother Erin told young Tom Vaughan stories of Rousseau’s and Wilson’s Union Army raids on the village in 1864 and 1865. 

“She was well acquainted with faculty of both the East Alabama Male College and the Female College in Tuskegee, reportedly tutored some of the early Samfords and addressed President Thach as ‘Charlie,’” he wrote in the Auburn Veterinarian

Erin and Crawford Howard settled in Tuskegee. Their youngest of nine, Mary Young Howard (1897-1979), in August 1916 married Marengo County farm boy Henry Asa Vaughan, who graduated API in agriculture in 1914, worked five years as county agent in his old professor Dr. Cary’s efforts to rid the state of ticks causing Texas fever in cattle and, early in the 1920s, opened a feed-seed-fertilizer farmers exchange which remains in operation at 106 Lee Street after more than a century. 

The Howards, the dean’s mother’s line, were long-established in Tuskegee. Ancestor Nehemiah Howard, combatant in the War of 1812, was granted 2,000 acres on the Federal Road west of Tuskegee, and he parlayed this into a 10,000-acre estate. 

Henry Asa Vaughan raised four sons on their row crops-cotton-corn farm and John Thomas Vaughan — the youngest — learned to work by watching his father and his brothers and by doing. He was an in-house farmhand when he rode with an older brother — home after serving in World War II — to Auburn to consult with Dr. John Ivey, early API poultry researcher. The Vaughan boys then diversified the farm by building the first broiler house in their part of the state. They launched a poultry, sheep 

and hog operation, adding to beef cattle the older brother had added before the war. These provided John Thomas Vaughan’s hands-on education in animal husbandry: castrating pigs, de-horning, spaying, worming. The boys delivered calves, summoning the veterinarian only for the dogs’ rabies shots and for castrating horses. 

“I had a fascination with livestock, be it hogs or cattle or poultry,” he recalled in a 2013 interview published in that fall’s Auburn Veterinarian. “The most exciting day of the year was not Christmas, but when we’d get up at 4 a.m. to work cows. I had no interest in cotton or corn, but I loved working with livestock. I didn’t become a veterinarian because I loved animals. I became a veterinarian to legitimize what I was already doing.” 

He also learned through interacting with locals, including Dr. George Washington Carver, a childhood acquaintance with whom Vaughan would converse as the Tuskegee Institute scientist would walk by on his way to campus; and an old Creek Indian named Jim Boozer, with whom Vaughan would spend hours riding horseback through family pastures. 

He revealed in that 2013 Auburn Veterinarian interview that his father had talked with his brothers and decided young Tom needed to attend Auburn and study veterinary medicine. After Vaughan’s undergraduate and veterinary training, Dean Sugg — impressed with the student’s capabilities — suggested he “finally go work with a veterinarian” in an internship in Smithfield, in “heavily agricultural Johnson County of eastern North Carolina.” He would be under direction of API grad Dr. Charles “Bug” Swearingen, whose mixed-animal Willowrun Veterinary Hospital was among the first accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association. That experience was, as the saying goes, drinking from the firehose. 

Every morning, I’d make whatever calls had come in. Then breakfast at a boarding house. By 8 o’clock I was on the killing floor at the local slaughterhouse. We’d kill hogs four days and cattle one day. That lasted until noon, and then I’d go to the boarding house for lunch. In the afternoon, I’d see small animal cases and start making farm calls. If the schedule was not completely full, we’d go bleed hogs and cattle for brucellosis. It was a large hog population, so we bled as many hogs as cattle. Every Thursday afternoon, we had stockyard inspection. Dr. Swearingen had the state veterinarian give me an unofficial federal accreditation so I could do federal sanctioned inspections. Six nights a week, I inspected a hog shipping market. I inspected every hog that came through the Smithfield shipping yard. As many as six double-decker trailer truck loads a night. 

After graduation, Vaughan was back practicing in Tuskegee. One day, he drove a jersey cow a few miles up State Road 29 to API for surgery with Dr. Kiesel. Dean Sugg pulled him aside and offered an instructor’s spot on the large animal faculty, with hospital and ambulatory responsibilities. Many of his first veterinary students were Korean War veterans a decade older than their instructor. That was 1955, and the following year he married Ethel Sell, daughter of a Tuskegee Methodist minister. 

After Dean Sugg died in office in 1958, new Dean James L. Greene sent Dr. Vaughan to a nontraditional residency at the University of Pennsylvania. Ethel and their year-old son remained in Tuskegee, while Dr. Vaughan spent three months on 24/7 duty. 

“It was as intense a crash course as I can imagine,” he remembered half a century later, adding that, to supplement his income that summer, he took the subway across Philadelphia several nights each week to work in a small animal practice. 

Later, back in Auburn, Dean Greene put Vaughan into Large Animal Surgery and Medicine, doing joint and roaring surgeries. He was first in a line of newcomers that, in short order, included Drs. Agee Wiggins, Don Walker, Fred Schell, Jay Humburg and Bob Carson. Not a bad lineup. 

Dr. Vaughan completed his master’s in 1963, earned membership in the College of Surgeons, then in 1969 received an offer to join the staff at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He accepted without consulting Ethel, and he admitted she would remind him of that over the years. The Vaughans arrived in Ithaca, New York, “in the dead of winter . . . on the heels of the worst winter storm in history.” He related that Syracuse recorded 147 inches of snow that winter, and he bought Ethel and the kids — two sons and a daughter by this time — skates, skis and a snowmobile. 

Auburn beckoned in 1974 and Dr. Vaughan became head of Large Animal Surgery and Medicine. When Dean Greene stepped down in 1977, Dr. Vaughan was named the fifth dean of the College Dr. Cary had launched 70 years earlier. He served until 1995. 

The past quarter-century, Dean Emeritus Vaughan has regularly contributed essays to Auburn Veterinarian. He wrote of history: 

local, regional, veterinary and human medical. He lauded friends, living and gone. He advised with a self-deprecating style. He wrote of his own path, from Tuskegee to Auburn to North Carolina to Philadelphia to New York and back, with ventures into seemingly every pasture, stall and trout stream in between. Not too often to overplay his hand, but often enough to share his fascinating background. He wrote of Ethel, once referring to her as his “trophy wife,” though clearly, and deeply, the love of his life every day of their 66 years of marriage. He wrote more than once how lucky he was, and you knew Ethel was at the heart of that comment. 

He described the trials of being a grandparent, babysitting “ungovernable young wards.” His mother was “the poet of the family,” and he acknowledged her influence in the winter 2022 Auburn Veterinarian. He referenced literature and Scripture often enough and broadly enough to cause readers to envy his personal library. He referenced and cited Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Pindar, Burns, Frost, A. E. Houseman, Twain, Faulkner, Thomas Gray, Goethe, et al. 

Auburn veterinary graduate Dr. Elizabeth Woolsey, speaking at Dr. Vaughan’s celebration of life event February 6 at the college, told of his having memorized all 104 lines of “The Man from Snowy River,” by A. B. “Banjo” Paterson and reciting it — almost verbatim — at some gathering of peers. Dr. Vaughan admitted on a couple of occasions that high on his list of favorite poems was “Abou Ben Adhem,” written in 1834 by English essayist Leigh Hunt. Fittingly, unsurprisingly, verse on loving and serving one’s fellow man. 

Former Dean and Auburn Provost Tim Boosinger, speaking at the program, said Dr. Vaughan had named Joseph Conrad his favorite author. JTV had claimed Faulkner his favorite a decade back. A wise person often has ever-evolving views. 

Dean Vaughan’s column reminded that fundamentals — in veterinary training but implied for most any endeavor — are not to be overlooked. 

He always signed off, “Respectfully, Yr humbl and obdt svt,” a throwback to generations of letter-writers gone-by. His former students, colleagues and many admirers had long realized he was a throwback to a different era. 

Thing about it, he really WAS a humble and obedient servant. 

Dr. Vaughan died at his and Ethel’s Auburn, Alabama, home January 13, 2023, age 90, the most notable name in the history of Auburn veterinary medicine this side of Cary. He rests in venerable Tuskegee Cemetery, a short walk through the woods from Tuskegee’s School of Veterinary Medicine, home to the first veterinarians he ever encountered and where he knew “every dean and many of the faculty since it was established in 1944.” 

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