Meeting Dr. John Thomas Vaughan was one of those terrifying moments in my career as a veterinarian. Well, technically, I wasn’t a veterinarian yet, but our class was in its third year, so we were close enough to taste it.
This is another post about my heroes in veterinary medicine.
I will never forget. It was afternoon, and we were in Avian Diseases class. About twenty minutes into the lecture the dean’s secretary entered the room.
We immediately knew who she was. She worked in that office. The big one, next to the medical library. Behind a door with a narrow, rectangular pane of glass. So narrow that you couldn’t really see what was going on in there. At least not without putting your face up to the glass, and who wanted to get that close?
To the right of her desk was another door. No window in that door. Behind that door was…The Dean. And nobody wanted to go beyond the dean’s door!
We had never actually seen her come out of her office, so what was she doing in our classroom? And, why was she whispering to Dr. Giambrone?
And, why was Dr. Giambrone pointing at me?
And why was the Dean’s secretary calling my name and motioning for me to follow her?
“Are you kidding?” the thoughts racing through my head. “I made it this far, I kept my nose clean all this time, and now, in my third year, I’m getting canned? What possibly could I have done to deserve this?”
In one swishing sweep we were through the door with the tiny rectangular window and past the door that led to the dean’s office. Or, was it the lion’s den?
“Jim, come in and have a seat,” Dean Vaughan said.
“Hmm, he has a soft, comforting voice,” I noted. “He didn’t roar. He doesn’t seem to have the teeth of a carnivore. In fact, his smile was rather reassuring and pleasant. Is he treating me nicely before he gives me the bad news, or do I totally have the wrong idea?” So many thoughts were racing through my mind that I almost didn’t hear his next statement.
“So, you’re a fan of William Faulkner, too.”
I think that’s when the sweat began to pour. My hands. My feet. I just hoped it wasn’t showing. The dean hadn’t summoned me to give me the boot, he was responding, in person, to the letter I’d sent him.
You see, a veterinarian of worldwide note, Dr. Cal Schwabe, had come to lecture to the entirety of Auburn University as a visiting scholar and share his view of animals in literature. Dr. Schwabe was the father of veterinary epidemiology at U. C. Berkeley and author of the book, Cattle, Priests and Medicine. It was a broadening of scope for many veterinary students. Some failed to see the connection between the study of written works and the mechanics of medicine. Dean Vaughan, on the other hand, poster child for the Renaissance Man, wanted our horizons widened. I had simply written a quick letter, saying that I shared his vision and appreciated the discourse the visiting doctor had presented.
As an Alabamian, Dr. Vaughan wasn’t born with the gene many Mississippians possess, which gives them an inherited predisposition to support institutions of higher learning south of U.S. Highway 82. That means anything Oxford or University of Mississippi falls somewhere between “dislike” and “repugnant.” Spending two and a half years in Yoknapatawpha County (Faulkner’s fictitious name for Lafayette County, Mississippi, of which Oxford is the county seat, and home to Ole Miss), surrounded by memories of Faulkner’s presence, it would have been difficult to not become a fan! At the University of Mississippi, where my undergraduate work was done and where Bill Faulkner served as postmaster for a time, Faulkner memorabilia was everywhere.
We chatted for almost an hour, like we had been friends forever. No longer was the dean someone to be feared. Instead, he was almost human, almost like the rest of us.
He was still THE DEAN!
Many times in the succeeding two years I was at Auburn I had opportunities to watch Dr. Vaughan in action attending to equine patients he cared for so expertly. He put the same passion and seriousness into medical care that he utilized in everything else he did. It was a delight to a budding veterinarian to see the level of knowledge he possessed.
In his career he has been a leader for as long as I have known him. He has been the chairman of innumerable committees and programs advancing veterinary medicine and advocating for the welfare of domesticated animals.
In years since I have often thought of him when I needed to be all I could be. When I needed inspiration to do my best. When I knew there was more inside me but I needed help to pull it out.
I think about one of the people who believed in me and made me feel like I could achieve.
It’s one of the things heroes do best.
See you next week, Dr. Randolph.