Cancer Finally Kills The Gringo!

The New York Times obituary notice reads:”Jack Hood Vaughn, who led the Peace Corps at the height of its volunteer enrollment in the late 1960s, died on Monday at his home in Tucson. The cause was cancer.”

The notice included this photograph of Vaughn taken in 1966 with President Johnson and Shriver. It’s a lengthy obituary, but does not tell the story of Vaughn at the Peace Corps. Only a novel could do Jack Hood Vaughn’s life full justice.obit20vaughn203_r

Born and raised in Columbus, Montana, where the Yellowstone River pours out of the Rocky Mountains, Johnny Hood, as he called himself back then, felt an early attraction toward Mexico. “I was bumming around Mexico,” he told me later in his life, “and I ran out of money.  I decided I would take my boxing skills and turn pro, but I didn’t know enough Spanish at the time to tell whether the agent said I would get 60 pesos for four rounds or four pesos for 60 rounds. You can guess which figure was correct.” Before he was though, he had 26 professional fights in Mexico. “Whenever I fought, the crowd would cry, ‘Kill the Gringo!’ That’s the title of the book I’m writing about my life, ‘Kill the Gringo!'”

Johnny Hood went from Mexico to the University of Michigan where he enrolled under  his real name, Jack Vaughn. At the university, he became a serious amateur boxer, winning the Golden Gloves feather-weight championship in Michigan three times. In fact, he worked his way through the university as the boxing coach while earning his undergraduate degree in Latin American studies.

In 1943 he signed up with the Marines as a private and came out of WW II a decorated Marine captain, having seen combat on Eniwetok, Guam, and Okinawa. He  returned to Michigan for a master’s degree in Latin American studies and subsequently taught Spanish and French at the University of Michigan and the University of  Pennsylvania. He also continued his own studies at the National University of Mexico during the summer, and in 1949 he joined the U.S. Informational Agency as director of the Bi-National Center in La Paz, Bolivia.

In Bolivia he directed a large-scale English language teaching program, teacher training courses, lecture series, and ran the library. He stayed in Bolivia for two years, then went to do the same job in San Jose de Costa Rica.

By 1952, he was with the International Cooperation Administration (predecessor to AID) and in Panama for four years. Next he turned to Bolivia as ICA program officer. By 1958, he had finished a decade of service in Latin America and returned to the U.S. and joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies.

In 1960, he went again with the ICA and to Dakar and set up aid programs for Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. When the Peace Corps came along, he signed up immediately with Shriver, saying, “the Peace Corps idea had a great appeal to me. And the people, I knew who were putting this idea into effect appealed to me even more.”

Vaughn, of course, spoke fluent Spanish, and he knew Latin America intimately, but he did not fit the New Frontier type. He was small, slightly built. He had ginger-colored hair and a 1940s mustache. He also spoke quietly and carefully and initially seemed “out of synch” with the other Mad Men of the early days of the agency.

But he was made of steel, in addition to his boxing abilities.

When he went to the Kennedy White House to be ‘cleared’ for this Latin America Peace Corps post there was some hesitancy about appointing him due to his ’40s mustache. He was told to shave it off to get the appointment and he told the White House words to the effect of ‘shove it!”

He was appointed head of the Peace Corps Latin America Regional Office.

When he returned to the agency as Peace Corps Director, the first thing he did was walk from floor to floor and say hello and greet everyone who was working for the agency. Stopping at a friend of mine’s office, he said he was going next to see John Alexander, then director of the African Region. Alexander and Vaughn did not get along. And, in fact, Alexander had said when he heard Vaughn was taking over from Shriver, “Well, I guess I’m done here.”

Jack commented to my friend that he had heard about Alexander’s prediction and then Jack quietly added, “I’m going to see John now and tell him he is right.”

John Alexander was out of the Peace Corps.

The New York Times piece tells of what Jack was like in his late ’60s. Vaughn was walking in Manhattan after midnight and was attacked by a would-be mugger. “I kneed him in the groin,” Jack recalled. “And I hit him in the jaw about five times. I have an unbelievable left hook.”

But there was another side to this  feather-weight fighter.

I was in Ethiopia as the APCD in 1966 when Vaughn, newly appointed, visited Addis Ababa.

As a reception for Volunteers one of my PCVs, Sara Dixon Hester, came up and mentioned that her grandmother had met Vaughn two weeks earlier at a Peace Corps function in Atlanta, Georgia, and told Vaughn that her granddaughter was in Ethiopia.

“Well, go say hello,” I told Sara.

There was a press of PCVs around Vaughn and Sara was too shy to push herself forward. So with my help, I guided her to the front of the line and introduced her to Vaughn, who when he heard her name, smiled and said immediately, “Sara, your grandmother told me to check up on you when I arrived in Addis Ababa? How are you doing?”

Jack Hood Vaughn was 92 when he died this last Monday at his home in Tucson. Cancer finally killed the gringo.

5 Comments

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  • John,

    You give a much more vivid, colorful account of Jack’s life than any obituary would be likely to do. He was distant from the boxing ring when I got to now him perhaps 20 years ago, but the flight never left him! Thank you for bringing out his character and personal qualities so well.

  • As always John…thanks for putting in a well deserved word for our Director and Ambassador, he was down for the last count! I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Peace Corps Camps in Puerto Rico, and later in DC when he interviewed me for an APCD position in Colombia in 1968. He conducted the entire interviewed in Spanish, I passed and went on to be assigned to Barranquilla, Colombia. In 1969, Jack was made our Ambassador, with a priority to spend more time with Volunteers in the field…he made it possible for Volunteers and Staff to succeed, we were important to him! Leftie Vaughn his wife sent me the following note before his death…he still wanted to reach out to the Volunteers! “Thank you for this lovely email, Bob. I will read it to him right away and while he can no longer respond, he still understands everything, and I know it will make him happy that you are thinking of him. There’s nothing he loves more than the Peace Corps, boxing, and Latin America, and among all of those in the world, Jack has the fondest affection for Peace Corps Volunteers and all your great work. Un abrazo gigante back to you and your family and many thanks again.” Leftie Vaughn
    Bob

  • Great obituary, John. Jack was PC director when I went to Fiji in 1968, but in those days, to most PCVs he was just a name we saw occasionally on PC documents. Nice to learn all this fascinating information about the man behind that name

    RIP, Jack..

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