Col. Norman Vaughan, adventurer, dies at age 100
LEGACY: From Byrd expedition to 13 Iditarod starts, he dreamed big and inspired others.
Vaughan participated in a video teleconference with family in South Carolina during his 100th birthday celebration Saturday held at Providence Alaska Medical Center. (Photo by EVAN R. STEINHAUSER / Anchorage Daily News)
Vaughan drove a dog team into Nome on March 15, 2000, at the end of the 776-mile Serum Run to commemorate the historic dog team relay race that brought a shipment of diphtheria serum to the stricken gold mining town in 1924. (Photo by AL GRILLO / The Associated Press)
A youthful Vaughan appears in an undated photo provided by his family. (Photo courtesy Vaughan family)
Col. Norman Vaughan served as one of three dog handlers on the 1928-30 Byrd expedition in Antarctica. (Photo by BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News)
By GEORGE BRYSON
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: December 24, 2005)
Refusing to "grow old" to the very end, irrepressible dog musher and world adventurer Col. Norman Vaughan died in an Anchorage hospital Friday amid family and friends -- just four days past his 100th birthday.
Vaughan's life as a sportsman, soldier and entrepreneur spanned the 20th century, but it was his buoyant example of how an active outdoor life doesn't have to end at age 70, or 80, or even 90 that inspired legions of admirers.
At 84, Vaughan was still entering and completing the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome as the self-proclaimed "oldest and slowest" musher in the world.
At 89, he climbed a 10,320-foot Antarctic peak that Adm. Richard Byrd named in his honor 65 years earlier during their historic 1928-1930 South Pole expedition. He was assisted on the climb by his wife, Carolyn Muegge-Vaughan, and Alaska mountain guide Vern Tejas.
"I know how to dream big dreams," Tejas said later, "but Norman dreams impossible dreams. That's what I want to learn from him."
"Colonel Vaughan is truly one of the most inspirational people we'll ever know," Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich declared on Friday. Other remembrances poured in from across the state.
Born in Salem, Mass., on Dec. 19, 1905, Vaughan showed little interest in securing a prosperous future in the family's lucrative shoe business. A more adventurous world beckoned outside.
As a sled-dog enthusiast, he dropped out of Harvard University his freshman year to spend several months with a British doctor who was traveling by dog sled to minister to Eskimos in the Canadian Arctic.
As a sophomore, he dropped out again to devote a year to training scores of sled dogs required for the Byrd expedition, then labored two more years without pay on the expedition itself.
One purpose of the trip was Byrd's wish to become the first person to fly an airplane over the South Pole, just as he'd arguably flown the first plane over the North Pole in 1926. But a second goal was to explore uncharted regions of Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation.
Near the climax of the journey, Vaughan joined a select six-man team that skied 1,500 miles toward the South Pole and back, partly to rescue Byrd should he crash, but also to conduct geologic studies in the Maud Mountains. Vaughan thrilled at the entire experience, which ultimately changed his life.
"We were closer to God on that trip," he later wrote. "We realized how insignificant we humans really were."
Returning home at 25, Vaughan had lost all interest in continuing at Harvard. Instead, he married, sold advertising, played semi-professional football (until the boss at his advertising firm objected), won an Olympic trials sled dog race and represented the U.S. in the demonstration sport of dog mushing at the 1932 Winter Games at Lake Placid, N.Y. He also pioneered the sport of alpine skiing in America -- writing "Ski Fever," one of the earliest guidebooks on the sport -- while also moonlighting as a ski instructor.
"My parents wanted me to lead a proper life," he once told a reporter. "But I couldn't imagine staying in New Hampshire and selling Vaughan's Ivory Shoe Leather in the family business. It would have been duller than dishwater."
After America entered World War II, Vaughan's life was seldom dull. Volunteering for military service in the U.S. Army Air Corps at the age of 36, he was commissioned a first lieutenant and assigned to a search and rescue unit in Maine. There he trained soldiers and sled dogs for rescue operations in the North Atlantic and participated in several missions to find downed planes.
Eventually promoted to colonel, he devised a scheme backed by Gen. George Patton to parachute sled dogs to the Battle of the Bulge to rescue injured allied soldiers stranded in the snow. He was camping at Le Bourget airfield in Paris with 17 men and 209 dogs when the mission was canceled due to logistical delays.
After the war, Vaughan was awarded the Legion of Merit for exceptional service. He remained on active duty four more years, worked as a civilian for the Homelite company, then returned to military service during the war in Korea. Assigned to the psychological warfare division at the Pentagon, he wrote pamphlets that were dropped behind enemy lines urging North Korean soldiers to surrender.
At 50, Vaughan returned to civilian life for good. For a while he worked on horseback as an umpire on the New England polo circuit. Eventually he opened a snowmachine dealership in Ipswich, Mass. Partly as a publicity stunt and partly for the adventure, he set a long-distance record by driving an early snowmachine 5,700 miles from Anchorage to Boston.
Still, Vaughan suffered numerous disappointments. His first marriage failed after the birth of a son. His second marriage failed after the birth of a daughter. A third marriage soured as his snowmobile business went bankrupt following two snowless New England winters. At the age of 67, he finally found himself penniless and alone -- and decided to move to Alaska.
ALASKA LIFE BEGINS IN 1973
Starting over in Anchorage in 1973, Vaughan landed a job working as a janitor for the University of Alaska Anchorage. He also began to piece together a dog team, training in the evening at Tudor Track. With his co-workers at UAA serving as his prime sponsor, the 69-year-old Vaughan entered the 1975 Iditarod under the banner "Norm to Nome."
But that trail can turn treacherous, as Vaughan would discover again and again. His rookie race faltered on the fifth day, when he drenched his feet in overflow and developed a serious case of frostbite. Returning to Anchorage, he was hospitalized for nine days and suffered permanent injury to his feet. The next year, Vaughan lost his way in blowing snow near Rainy Pass and remained missing for five days. He was out of food and suffering hypothermia when a bush pilot spotted his trail and alerted two rescuers on snowmachines.
As much as the race battered him, Vaughan never despaired of the Iditarod. All he had to do, he kept telling friends, was solve a few tactical problems. Entering the race a third time, in 1978, he finally succeeded (at age 72) arriving in Nome in 22 days, 3 hours, 29 minutes -- just three seconds ahead of the last-place musher.
According to fellow musher and Homer-based author Shelley Gill, who joined him in the race, both of them took a few wrong turns. At one point, Gill says, she hit the brake and yelled up the trail, "'Norman! We're going the wrong way!' ... 'I know!' he bellowed back cheerfully. 'But we're making darn good time!' "
In all, Vaughan entered 13 Iditarods -- six after turning 80 -- completing the race four times within the official time limit. His last successful race was 1990. He never finished last.
He wrote two autobiographies, "With Byrd at the Bottom of the World: The South Pole Expedition of 1928-1930" (published in 1990) and "My Life of Adventure" (published in 1995).
But Vaughan was still looking for new adventures five years later when -- in early 2000 (at the age of 94) -- he traveled 17 days by snowmobile from Nenana to Nome to commemorate the heroic 1925 Alaska serum run by dog sled.
"Alaska is God's gift to people who love the outdoors," he once told Gill. "Its beauty shines from everywhere. You have to live up to Alaska."
Inspired by his example, children across the country wrote Vaughan letters, and statesmen around the world paid him visits. In 1981, Pope John Paul II (15 years younger than Vaughan) took a ride on the runners of his dog sled during his papal visit to Anchorage.
Later in the 1980s, Vaughan married then-45-year-old Carolyn Muegge at a Peters Creek roadhouse -- two years after she served as a volunteer dog handler for him during his 1986 Iditarod. Six years later, the couple followed Tejas on their slow, steady ascent of Mount Vaughan.
"So much of his life has depended on never losing sight of the goal," Carolyn said after their climb. "Of course most people will discourage you. ... Norman always figured he could get around roadblocks by looking for another route."
'DREAM BIG, YOUNG AND OLD'
One final goal remained: to return to Mount Vaughan to celebrate his 100th birthday on the summit. But after being hospitalized three years ago, Vaughan's health remained marginal.
Four days before his birthday, he was admitted to the hospital again with erratic breathing and a weakened heart.
"He is still the gracious gentleman we all know and love," reported family friend Susan Ruddy, an administrator at Providence Alaska Medical Center. "When asked how he feels, he still does his best to muster a hearty, 'Fine, just fine -- thank you.' "
Last Saturday, family and friends and hospital workers took advantage of a slight improvement in Vaughan's condition to celebrate his 100th birthday in a lobby in the hospital. As planned, he marked the occasion by gulping down a few oysters and a couple sips of champagne, his first ever taste of alcohol.
It wasn't Antarctica, but the personal motto Vaughan invoked 11 years earlier after reaching the summit of his mountain still rang true.
"Dream big, young and old!" he said back then. "Dream big and dare to fail!"
Vaughan was preceded in death by his parents Bessie Dane and George Cutts Vaughan and his brother George. He is survived by his wife, Carolyn, his children, Jerry Vaughan and Jackie Lee, and his sister Janice Snow.
In accordance with his own wishes, family members said, there will be no funeral services. Instead a memorial will be organized next March during the 2006 Iditarod
I hope heaven don't bore the old man to death.
Shook hands with him once. That was my brush with greatness.
It was that first drink of alcohol that did him in I bet .