Rob Vaughan puts the ‘human’ in humanities

Rob Vaughan “didn’t just love his work at Virginia Humanities, he lived it,” says current executive director Matthew Gibson.
John Robinson Rob Vaughan “didn’t just love his work at Virginia Humanities, he lived it,” says current executive director Matthew Gibson. John Robinson

In a parallel universe, Rob Vaughan would probably have been an assistant English professor somewhere—“not here, because no one gets to stay,” he says. Instead, when then-UVA President Edgar Shannon gave him a call in 1974, Vaughan ended up launching the largest state humanities organization in the country, and a five-month gig stretched decades.

After 43 years of helming the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Vaughan, 72, will take a sabbatical June 30 and retire at the end of the year.

In January, the General Assembly passed a resolution heralding Vaughan’s accomplishments. “I was stunned,” he says, especially when he saw his family walking into the House of Delegates.

“There’s little doubt that Rob Vaughan absolutely put the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities on the map, not just in the state, but nationally,” says Minority Leader David Toscano.

Even during the worst budget-slashing years, the foundation secured funding from the legislature. “The bleakest,” says Vaughan, “was around 1990. There were some serious budget issues, and we were going to be zeroed out in the state budget.”

Vaughan fended off that cut, and today VFH’s budget is $7.2 million. “There’s nothing else like us in the country, this big with this much staff,” he says. “Funding comes from much farther than Virginia,” including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

So why has a legislature that practically starves state funding of its flagship university been so generous to a humanities organization?

“There is something about Virginians and their history,” says Vaughan. “People tend to think about what went on here.” Contributing to that understanding are the more than 40,000 programs the foundation has produced, including this week’s Virginia Festival of the Book—the 23rd—public radio programs and more than 3,500 grants.

The first VFH board homed in on slavery and civil rights. “It was my priority and Edgar’s priority, and the board just picked it up,” Vaughan says. From there it turned in 1982 to the Virginia Women’s Cultural History Project, and then on to Native American history and Virginia’s folklife.

And in 2017, the foundation, like the nation, is focusing on immigration. “There’s a huge Filipino population here—the second largest in the country,” says Vaughan. “In some ways I’d judge we need [the humanities] even more than ever.”

Vaughan is preparing to sail into the sunset—literally—by teaching at Semester at Sea. He’s got his own study full of archives that demand attention, and he’d like to get back to writing.

“I feel quite fortunate,” he says. “It’s been a busy job and a very demanding one. Everything I’ve done here I’ve liked doing—except for a few things.”

Rob Vaughan’s books for a desert island

  • Absalom, Absalom!—William Faulkner
  • Middlemarch—George Eliot
  • My Name Is Red—Orhan Pamuk
  • William Butler Yeats’ entire collection
  • W. H. Auden Collected Poems

Vaughan’s top five VFH programs

  • Virginia Festival of the Book
  • Encyclopedia Virginia and digitizing the foundation’s one-of-a-kind archives
  • Virginia Folklife Program
  • Radio programs: “BackStory,” “With Good Reason”
  • History of Virginia’s Indians, women, black citizens, slavery, civil rights and the way new immigrants are changing the state