Vaughn was its second director back in the 1960s, but he remains remarkably active today, gardening on his one-acre plot in Tucson, Ariz., retelling stories of boxing and life on John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and, in summer, casting a fly rod over rivers in Idaho.
None of his tales gives him more pleasure than a lunchtime phone call he received at a bar in Georgetown in 1966. The bartender said it was the president. Vaughn finished his margarita, then said hello, expecting a staff aide.
The voice was Lyndon B. Johnson's, saying, "Vaughn, would you like to be director of the Peace Corps?"
"I said, 'Sure, I thought you'd never ask,' " relates Vaughn, whose career path was in doubt after serving as ambassador to Panama, coordinator of the Alliance for Progress and assistant secretary of state battling political enemies. By 4 p.m., he accepted the new job, succeeding R. Sargent Shriver.
From boxing to diplomat
Shriver, who died at 95 on Jan. 18, was the Peace Corps' founding director in March 1961 when the agency was created. He asked Vaughn, an economist and former Marine Corps captain, to shape the Latin America programs as thousands were applying to be among the first volunteers. By 1964, when Vaughn moved on, that region had 2,500 volunteers, some promoting erosion control in remote mountains, others teaching where peasants were largely illiterate.
On March 1, the Peace Corps launches a worldwide Peace Corps Month, marking the date of the executive order creating the agency. Vaughn will join a panel in Washington on March 17 at 7 p.m. at the National Archives and Records Administration to talk about the early years of the corps. The other panelists will be Bill Moyers, a former deputy director, and Harris Wofford, a former associate director.
Vaughn is writing an autobiography, Kill the Gringo, a title that recalls the cries he heard in boxing rings in Mexico when he was fighting as Kid Montana (he was born in Columbus, Mont.). As a high school Golden Gloves featherweight champion, Vaughn was a sparring partner for Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep. While in college, he wanted pro experience, and in Juarez, crowds shouted, "Mata gringo, mata lo." He asked his Mexican aide what it meant, and he replied, "Sir, they saying welcome to Juarez." His first real lesson in Spanish, he calls it.
Passions are varied
Vaughn became a boxing coach at the University of Michigan, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees, and a student of French and Spanish literature before he embarked on one of the most colorful careers in international affairs.
He was the Peace Corps' chief until 1969 when, he says, "I was the first bureaucrat fired by Richard Nixon." On his way out, Vaughn met with the new secretary of state, Elliot Richardson, who shared his interest in boxing and needed an ambassador to Colombia. Vaughn said that from his days as Peace Corps regional director for Latin America, "I knew everybody in Colombia, by their first names." He had put 700 volunteers there and knew the language and the issues. By day's end, Vaughn was the choice for U.S. ambassador to Colombia, serving through 1970.
Aside from the Peace Corps, his résumé reflects a range of passions. He was head of the National Urban Coalition and of Planned Parenthood, and was director of international programs at the Children's Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street. He was also dean of international studies at Florida International University from 1972 to 1975.
Devoted public servant
Of Vaughn's four children, none joined the Peace Corps. He has one granddaughter. His wife, Leftie, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad before they were married. She has devoted much of her life to volunteer work, most recently helping refugees adapt to life in Tucson.
Leftie Vaughn says her husband has never shirked a challenge. "He did his best to do the most he could for humanity at every job he had. He has been an extraordinary public servant and a devoted citizen," she adds.
Today, Vaughn wears a tiny fish-shaped red lapel pin standing for Salmon Nation, an outfit founded by Portland-based Ecotrust seeking to preserve salmon and build local communities in the areas where salmon once thrived. He is an emeritus chairman of Ecotrust.
Of his core values, gratitude ranks high, especially to his Marine Corps platoon marksmen who fought in Eniwetok, Guam and Okinawa. "I am alive because of those Marines," he says. "I had 125 guys. I am the only one left."
And then there's fly rod fishing for trout near Sun Valley, Idaho, each summer, nurturing friendships going back long before most of today's Peace Corps volunteers were even born.
Ford Burkhart, a retired New York Times editor, lives in Tucson, Ariz.