Susannah Perillat remembers Vaughn Davis Bornet

“I tried to do the best with what I had.” Favorite Words- Erudite. Anyway.

Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet (VDB or Dr. B.) was born October 10th, 1917, and passed away peacefully, October 5th, 2020, five days before his 103rd birthday. This is a tribute to a man who gained creditability in his academic domain as a historian and a scholar. Bornet published many works in the field of presidents, social welfare and in health with the American Heart Association. Dr. Bornet continually pursued his passions outside academia, including music, photography, outdoor life, and volunteering, for the health of himself, his family, and his community large and small.

I was hired to assist him nearly five years ago, and the more I endeavor to share the bird’s-eye view I was privileged to have, the more a few highlights stand out. As we started working more closely together on his manuscripts, he would test me by asking me to argue my point. Gradually, I began to have more confidence. I started winning him over to my suggestions or objections, so much that he started saying, “You just go ahead and do it!”

He rarely complained about himself, he stuck to his rhythms, and he didn’t take himself too seriously, except when he did. I would often rub my arm against his and say, “Please rub off on me – just a little.” He harnessed a stick-to-it-iveness that was enviable. People were always asking him what the secret to his long life was.

Writing predominated his thoughts. Sometimes I’d arrive early in the morning, trying to get to editing work before he’d arise. I often told him one had to be an octopus to accomplish all that he had ready to work with at a moment’s notice. He had me constantly use his well-worn dictionary and make it a habit to look up information in his encyclopedias. Encyclopedia Britannica had hired him to write the section about American presidents. Dr. B., as he let me call him, immersed himself in his writing, research, reading new books on his subject and corresponding with those willing to accompany his present journey of writing.

He had grown up academically at Stanford University, working with think tanks and brilliant minds. He had a slew of professionals at his fingertips: secretaries, researchers—though he did most of his research himself—proof-readers, editors and very importantly—publishers. He found his stride teaching at Southern Oregon College, as it was called back in the sixties. Vacation time was a mix of play and work. Together with his wife, Beth, he would tool around the country in their RV, along the way writing, gathering information, and getting ever closer to their destinations, our presidential libraries. He had secured approval to study the contents for one of his books.

Being a child of the Great Depression, he welcomed an opportunity to save on finances and have a good time doing so. Vaughn would often reminisce how his wife provided one of the most important tools for his writing: reading those manuscripts out loud together. TV was non-existent those days in an RV. I would gladly step in to read for him and build upon a new tradition of editing and proof-reading. Still, nothing would interfere with his eight-decade long habit of listening to the opera on Saturday mornings. The outdoor life nourished his inner life and creativity. Along with listening to music, he also played the cornet since childhood and he could remember the words to almost any tune, especially spirituals. I used to call him a living juke box!

He spent hours writing every day. He didn’t put much thought into eating after Beth passed. Four eggs, half a grapefruit, which we ordered a box at a time online, and a cup of coffee with two packets of fake sugar for breakfast. He defended his no-sugar idea until the end, except for the dark chocolate Hersey bars we also ordered online. This morning routine would be followed by the exercise bike, which he insisted be placed on most difficult gauge and he wouldn’t stop until he completed one hundred and forty repetitions. He never smoked. He sang. A lot. And laughed.

Writing poetry was a lifelong passion and hobby; his reading preferences were non-fiction. He didn’t see the sense of fiction as life, for him, was so full of history and amazing stories filled with comedy and tragedy. He had his share of tragedy. He felt it kept him humble.

With that said, his favorite companions were dogs because of their unconditional love. He actually did write a children’s book loved by all who read it. It is about one of his favorite dogs, Blaze. Here, I learned how to diplomatically argue the edits and the rearrangements of the illustrations. I found out how helpful the folks at the copyright office were on the phone. He encouraged me to never hesitate to ask for help.

He had a bittersweet relationship with his computer and printer. You would become his hero if you could get him out of whatever his present jam might be: his computer glitches, his printer not working, or learning how to update his website, His website is a compilation of thousands of pages of his writings, mostly published. Another one of his legacies.

Dr. B. kept in touch with his peers until they died off, then he kept in communication with the younger generation, eighty years or younger, a new audience for his oratories. Within his writing, he would refer to his previous works and awards.

He regularly published at History News Network and sent material out to those who mattered to him for their points of view, corrections, and praise. Founder of History News Network (HNN), Rick Shenkman, wrote, Vaughn Davis Bornet, RIP at 102. During Mr. Shenkman’s thirteen years working with Dr. Bornet, he noted that VDB published over sixty articles on the HNN website. His first article in 2007 was written about race relations, a subject Vaughn often fought for by writing, thus exercising his civic duty. His last article, published in May 2020, was about the havoc being wreaked upon world affairs by the current president. He optimistically titled that article, “‘This Too, Shall Pass’. History and Life, Say So!” (Schenkman).

He would often call or email Elisabeth Zinser, past president of SOU (2001-6) and president at Ashland Rotary (2017-18), to talk about his works in progress, requesting her valued feedback. She appreciated that he always respected her edits. Elisabeth would visit from time to time and bring something for his sweet tooth and share a cherished glass of port. At his memorial, she also shared with us that His best speech was for his 100th birthday celebration while I was President at Rotary. He had us in stitches.” He always wrote and prepared for his innumerable speeches but delivered them off the cuff. She said Vaughn was a dear colleague, scholar, academic, and Rotarian: they became friends (Zinser). He portrayed the Rotary motto, Service Above Self. His writing was his civic duty. Volunteering was essential!

Perhaps most important to both he and his wife, Beth, was their sense of civic duty. He was constantly looking for ways to be of service. Ron Bolstad, a meaningful friend and colleague at SOU, Ashland Rotary, and a musician, says he never knew what Vaughn had up his sleeve when he would call. Once, from Vaughn’s hospital bed at Linda Vista, he saw a man in the rain at the bus stop and insisted that Ron get right on it and have a shelter constructed for that bus stop. After many months of effort, the lack of funds stopped his good idea (Bolstad).

Many times, when I would tell people who I was working with, they would exclaim, “Oh did you know his wife Beth?” Ellie Holty, another caretaker, and assistant, said in my recent interview with her that she loved his “enormous dedication to Beth and how it remained untouched by time.” He expressed that same dedication and love for his family.

He had had professionals to tend to his previous erudite work, including secretaries and university publishers like University of Kansas, who published his work on President Johnson. Thanks to them, he could pride himself in footnotes, indexes, table of contents, and perhaps even a glossary, but he was an incessant editor as well as endlessly working on probable titles. When he thought something was finished it had to be printed at least five times. Needless to say, he had a constant stream of ink supplied by Amazon and reams of paper and new printers. I took on the task of making sure all that paper got recycled. He earned his indulgences.

He stuck with two fonts, New Times Roman and Bookman Old Style—probably the latter because it filled pages faster—after the age of 100 insisted on size 14 font. His typewriter habits were hard to break. Back in the day italics didn’t exist. Rewriting his typewritten manuscripts onto Word, we had to replace all the underlines for the new and improved—italics. Yet whenever he would type on his computer he would continue to underline as well as constantly inserting his thoughts in parentheses. One could not, would not, and absolutely should not leave one word at the end of a paragraph, nor empty space at the end of a page, nor begin a sentence with a preposition—no arguing with him. In the dark of the night, he would fill up those empty spaces.

Ellie Holty worked for Dr. Bornet for four and a half years. She was more than happy to be interviewed for this paper about Vaughn Bornet on Sunday, 29 November 2020. I had prepared several questions and honed them down to one most pertinent to me as a human being. I chose the guiding question to be centered around how this “Cantankerous Centenarian” (from the title of a John Darling article in 2017 for Vaughn’s 100th birthday), influenced our lives today and earned the long-time admiration of those near and far, myself included. He could challenge her unconscious limitations or fears. He would encourage her to do better. Not only because he was used to high standards but because he believed in her and needed to get this book published. Today, she has co-authored the book Humane Leadership with a headstrong man and has found that she is able to stand up for herself thanks to the training and internship with Vaughn. Ellie learned an enormous amount about putting together complicated timelines and dealing with intimate letters, proof-reading, and editing, all the way through to working with the publisher. Today she knows she will stand up to the task at hand. (Holty).

Like Ellie, those of us at his memorial, and the many who shared a part of Dr. B., it takes a village of stories to feel the breadth of his long life and big personality. Personally, my time with Dr. B. is felt every day as I come across challenges, push myself to act even though I feel afraid, and continue learning and writing. I told him when it came time for me to graduate that I would dedicate it to him. What rubbed off on me was his spirit, something that can never be destroyed. When you have the spirit of doing your part yet staying connected to people, no matter what your profession or place in life, you have community. When you also create or participate with community, together you have love, that love is creative, and it inspires you how to improvise, adapt, and adjust to whatever circumstances present themselves. Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet’s life embodies an ever-expanding community for myself and I dedicate this effort of tribute to him.

Works Cited

Bolstad, Ron. Vaughn Davis Bornet Memorial. Ashland: Ellen Gribbon Bornet, 10 October 2020. Zoom.

Holty, Ellie. Small Business Owner Susannah Perillat. 5 November 2020. Phone interview.

Schenkman, Stone Age Brain aka Rick Schenkman. “History News Network.” 15 October 2020. History News Network (HNN). Ed. Rick Schenkman. Online blog. 5 December 2020.

Zinser, Elisabeth. “Former President at SOU and Ashland Rotary.” Memorial for Vaughn Davis Bornet. Ashland: Ellen Gribbon Bornet, 10 October 2020. Zoom.

Susannah Perillat is a senior in the Creative Writing program at Southern Oregon University. She worked with Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet for four and a half years. He was one of her biggest cheerleaders to keep up the good work.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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