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Jack Francis Vaughen

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Memories & Candles

“What a lovely remembrance of a most remarkable life. I know you will all miss him always. Jack was right -- he and Carol left an incredible legacy...Read More »
1 of 1 | Posted by: Ellen Owen - McLean - Friend

Jack Francis Vaughen died February 25, 2018. Although his health had been poor for five years following heart valve replacement surgery and advancing Alzheimer's, Jack had continued to live happily in his family home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, with his wife of 62 years, Carol, who had become his caregiver. Then last August, a fall left Jack unable to walk and necessitated a move to a board and care home. When Carol herself fell and then died from hip surgery complications in October, Jack lost the light and love of his life. Days before his death, having just turned 90 years old, Jack said, "I need to go be with Carol now, she's waiting for me." He passed peacefully during his sleep.

Jack's childhood was a strange and difficult one. He was born in Hinsdale, Illinois, on February 15, 1928, to an unwed young mother, and then adopted privately by Mack Vaughen, an itinerant carpenter. Jack spent his early years living in a car and traveling around the country with Mack and his new wife, the daughter of a Native American chief whom Mack had met while working on the reservation. Life on the road took its toll, and when Mack's wife abandoned the family, 3-year-old Jack and his dad moved to Bryan, Ohio. Mack married his childhood sweetheart, Winona, who adopted Jack, and the three began a new life on her family farm. They lived in Ohio and in Albuquerque, New Mexico, until Mack remarried again and moved on, leaving Jack at age 9 to care for the farm and his mother. Often alone, Jack was more comfortable with animals than people, his pursuits more solitary than social. He developed a passion for aviation and building model airplanes, becoming the founder and commander of the first Civil Air Patrol high school squadron in Ohio. His aspirations lay far beyond the farm, and the isolation and hard work of farm life had taught him he had to rely on himself to make those dreams a reality.

After graduating from high school at age 17, Jack joined the Air Force in 1945 in order to receive the GI Bill. He was stationed in the Philippines, where he ran a radio station north of Manila in the countryside for two years. The solitary work suited him because it allowed him plenty of time to study for his college entrance exams. He set his sights on MIT, was accepted and received his degree in aeronautical engineering in 1951 after three years. He was hired by Bell Helicopter in Dallas and put in charge at age 24 of the first wind tunnel tests of the prototype XV-3 tilt-rotor convertiplane, the precursor to today's V-22 Osprey. In 1954, he met Carol Ulsrud, a social worker, through a Young Professionals group at the Methodist Church, and they married 3 months after their first date. The newlyweds headed to Boston in 1955 so that Jack could get his MBA from Harvard Business School (where their first child, Michelle, was born).

Jack's creative instincts and fierce independence drew him toward entrepreneurship. He had written his Harvard senior thesis on starting up his own company to design and build helicopters and rotary wing devices, so that is what he did. He returned to Dallas (where Stephen and Lucinda were born) and launched Vaughen Aircraft, based on his invention of a helicopter rotor blade that was "self-feathering" and inherently more stable than conventional helicopters. When funding ran out, the family moved to Los Angeles in 1959, and for the next decade Jack worked at Del Mar Engineering as the project manager of the "Whirlymite" ultra-light helicopter pilot trainer that he invented. During these years (when Bradley was born), Jack spent nights and weekends developing another invention of his, a hovercraft for moving heavy industrial loads. In 1969, his new venture, AirBarge Company, received its first contract with Lockheed, and Jack spent the next 40 years building this business. By the time he closed the company at age 80, Jack's AirBarges had been used to change Boeing 737 landing gear and B-1 bomber engines, position satellite test fixtures for NASA's space telescope, and move huge tanks of helium gas at the South Pole in Antarctica, to name a few.

As anyone in a family business knows, the business becomes the family priority. So it was with the Vaughens. Stephen and Bradley built AirBarges in the early years in the garage, Michelle and Lucinda did clerical work for the company, and Carol did both. Brilliant and driven, Jack had little free time when the kids were young, but Carol's boundless family energy meant that there was always joy and laughter in the home -- and Jack couldn't help but be swept up in the fun of family life. He built a ride-on hovercraft for his kids to play with, taught his boys to shoot and all four kids to ride his Yamaha 125 motorcycle. Having never taken a true vacation before he married Carol, he came to love family vacations. Jack was the one who organized the Big Adventure on family camp trips: the dune buggy rental, speed boating, horseback riding. He always took the time to help with homework, sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of history and complex math. Most remember Carol's sense of humor, but Jack had his own too. He laughed uproariously when he read the comics, loved sharing his own witty poems he called "rhymie stymies," and learned to take himself less seriously, often laughing the hardest at his own misadventures.

Over his lifetime, family became everything to Jack. For Carol, family life came naturally, but for Jack who had grown up without much of a family it had to be learned. He became a loving and proud father, and by the time the grandchildren came along he adored them and always made them a priority. In their older years, he and Carol thoroughly enjoyed their travels – especially to India, where Jack gained a "second family" through his close business