Vaughan, Norman Dane

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Vaughan, Norman Dane

(b. 19 December 1905 in Salem, Massachusetts; d. 23 December 2005 in Anchorage, Alaska), adventurer and dogsled musher who traveled to Antarctica with Admiral Richard Byrd in 1928.

Vaughan was the eldest child of George Cutts Vaughan, a successful leather-tanning and shoe-manufacturing entrepreneur, and Bessie (Dane) Vaughan, a homemaker; he had two older half brothers, one sister, and one brother. Raised Episcopalian in Hamilton, Massachusetts, the young Vaughan relished the adventures of early polar explorers. To emulate those heroes, he and his lifelong friend Eddie Goodale trained their dogs to pull a sled. Vaughan’s early passion for adventure was evident when as an adolescent he spent a week living alone among the nearby Crane’s Beach dunes with just the clothes on his back.

In 1918 Vaughan entered boarding school at Milton Academy, outside Boston, where he lettered in four sports at the expense of scholastic success. He also learned to play polo, enjoyed hunting, and went whitewater canoeing, where reckless abandon almost cost him his life. In 1925 he graduated from Milton and entered Harvard but struggled academically. Granted a leave of absence in December, Vaughan traveled to remote Saint Anthony, Newfoundland, assisting the medical mission of Sir Wilfred Grenfell until September 1926. Vaughan’s skill as a dog musher matured through the harsh Canadian winter.

Languidly returning to Harvard, Vaughan soon interrupted his studies to train dogs, gratis, for Richard Byrd’s planned Antarctic expedition. Vaughan’s talent, adaptability, and self-reliance earned him a place on Byrd’s team, which arrived in Antarctica in December 1928. They established their base, “Little America,” and then took three months to move supplies to the camp by dogsled. Vaughan spent the extreme polar winter caring for scores of dogs, repairing equipment, and helping plan Lawrence Gould’s three-month, 1,500-mile geological survey by dogsled, in which he participated. After the team departed Antarctica in 1930, Byrd named a 10,302-foot peak there for Vaughan and then sought him as second in command for a 1933 return expedition. Vaughan, upon learning that he would remain at Little America and would not help explore the interior, regretfully declined.

Vaughan began working for the advertising giant N. W. Ayres and Sons in 1930, and the following year he married Iris Rodey. They had one son before divorcing in 1938. Vaughan’s restless spirit would remain at odds with domesticity and routine for most of his life. He married Rosamond Lockwood in 1938 and had one daughter but divorced in 1965.

Having honed his mushing skills with Byrd, Vaughan won a trial race to represent the United States in the Olympics’ only exhibition dogsled competition, placing tenth in Lake Placid in 1932. Nearly seventy years later he carried the Olympic flame as it proceeded to Salt Lake City, Utah. At ease on the snow, Vaughan wrote Ski Fever (1936), an instruction book for the increasingly popular sport. In 1938 he joined Homelite Co., selling pumps and generators, but he was often called throughout New England to conduct winter rescues by dogsled.

In 1942 Vaughan was granted a commission in the Army Air Forces, and he then spent much of World War II in eastern Canada using dog teams to rescue downed airmen. Notable was his retrieval of a top-secret Norden bombsight from a B-17 that had crash-landed with other planes on Greenland. Vaughan later participated in the expedition to recover this “Lost Squadron,” which by the 1980s was entombed in several hundred feet of ice and snow.

When the Battle of the Bulge raged in Europe, Vaughan devised a plan to evacuate wounded soldiers by dogsled. Unfortunately, approval languished, and when Vaughan arrived behind the lines in February 1945, warmer weather had turned the snow to mud. Not long after, Vaughan successfully air-dropped dogs by parachute for Grenfell’s use in Newfoundland. Discharged from military service near the war’s end, Vaughan moved to Montreal, Quebec, to head search and rescue for the International Civil Air Organization. Although he enjoyed the position, conflict with an unethical superior led to his resigning in 1949. He returned to Boston and began selling chain saws for Homelite.

Recalled to Air Force active duty soon after the outbreak of the Korean War, Colonel Vaughan worked on high-altitude balloon programs studying the jet stream. He also convinced superiors that he should represent the service in the 1952 International World Championship Dog Sled Race, in Alaska. Later, Vaughan was transferred to psychological operations, with his team air-dropping propaganda leaflets over enemy territory, effectively moving enemy soldiers to surrender.

Returning to civilian life in 1955, Vaughan worked odd jobs and trained sled dogs part time, regularly returning to Alaska for winter races. In 1959 Vaughan opened a store in Lawrence, Massachusetts, selling Niagara products. That same year he served as coach and trainer for the U.S. polo team that played in Iran. After his 1965 divorce, he opened a snowmobile dealership in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and in 1967 Lechmere Stores sponsored his forty-day, 5,700-mile snowmobile adventure from Circle, Alaska, to Boston. In 1972 Vaughan entered into an ill-conceived marriage to a business partner. In the early 1970s mild winters led to his incurring heavy debt and enduring personal strife; his third wife sold the business inventory in his absence.

After divorcing in 1973, Vaughan sold his assets and moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where he eventually found steady employment as a janitor at the University of Alaska. In 1976, despite his advanced age, Vaughan entered his first of thirteen thousand-mile Iditarod sled dog races. Through frostbite and hypothermia, Vaughan completed six of the trans-Alaskan journeys, his last in 1990, when he was inducted into the Musher Hall of Fame. When Vaughan learned that Alaska would be unrepresented in President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration parade, he took a dog team to Washington, D.C., and persisted until he was included. Vaughan also participated in President Ronald W. Reagan’s 1981 parade and gave Pope John Paul II a short sled ride during his visit to Anchorage.

Vaughan returned to Antarctica with Lawrence Gould in 1979 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first Byrd expedition. During the flight, Vaughan saw his namesake mountain for the first time and renewed his desire to climb its summit. On his initial expedition to the mountain, in 1993, he had brought dogs for what would have been their last use in Antarctica; a treaty banned them from the continent effective 1 April 1994. The expedition failed, however, owing to poor weather and severe logistical problems. On his second expedition, three days short of his eighty-ninth birthday, in 1994, Vaughan became the first person to reach the peak of Mount Vaughan.

In 1987, at age eighty-two, Vaughan had married Carolyn Muegge, nearly forty years his junior; they shared an adventurous union until Vaughan’s death. In 1997 the first annual Norman Vaughan Serum Run 25 was staged to commemorate the sled dog teams that relayed serum to curtail Nome’s 1925 diphtheria outbreak and to advocate immunization. Vaughan was to be its 2006 honorary musher, but he passed away from congestive heart failure only days after celebrating his hundredth birthday. His ashes were carried by dogsled in the 2006 Iditarod in memoriam; his remains were scattered along the trail, in both polar regions, and at other sites associated with his adventures. Vaughan forfeited a possible life of leisure to face the brutal challenges imposed by the rugged conditions of Canada and Antarctica, sparking a wanderlust that could never be sated. He personified the independent American spirit, fighting to overcome the impossible and living his creed: to “dream big and dare to fail.”

With Cecil B. Murphey, Vaughan wrote With Byrd at the Bottom of the World (1990), chronicling his participation in the 1928 expedition, and My Life of Adventure (1995), a comprehensive autobiography. The National Geographic Society produced the film documentary The Height of Courage: The Norman Vaughan Story (1994), chronicling his scaling of Mount Vaughan. An obituary is in the Anchorage Daily News (24 Dec. 2005).

William E. Fischer

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