Rob Vaughan: Lord of the lore

It was a dark and stormy night... No, actually, it was a cold and rainy January day when Rob Vaughan got the serendipitous phone call that would change his life.

He'd been teaching English and working on his PhD when UVA President Edgar Shannon asked him if he wanted to work on a new humanities organization. "It was to do six months of planning," recalls Vaughan, 28 years later.

That organization turned into the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. But why the humanities?

"The humanities are about the issues and stories that inform and shape people's lives," Vaughan readily replies. "They're important because they help us define what it means to be human– the ways we live, work, and play; create communities; and discover and interpret meaning."

But maintaining such a mission in a budget-slashing environment is no easy feat. When asked about the $100,000 the General Assembly recently sliced from VHF's funding, Vaughan clarifies: "It was $103,480, not to make too fine a point about it." That means no new computer system this year, fewer fellows' awards, and fewer grants.

And while Vaughan's is a dream job for people who have wondered just what they're going to do with that liberal arts degree, the worst part, he says, is the funding, "the frustration of making the case over and over" why the foundation is important.

Despite the purse tightening, VFH funds programs such as African American Heritage in Virginia, Virginia Folklife, and the radio show With Good Reason. The best-known outgrowth of the VFH is the Virginia Festival of the Book. As for whose idea that was, Vaughan admits you'd get different answers from everyone you asked.

His version is that he met bibliophile Cal Otto 15 years through a mutual friend. Otto had just moved here from Vermont, where he'd left his collection of 10,000 books about the Green Mountain State.

"I told him I wanted to start a book festival," says Vaughan. "He went out and recruited Paul Collinge and Tom Dowd and Terry Belanger, and comes back and says, 'We've got a group to start a book festival.'"

Now in its ninth year, this year's festival had the misfortune to coincide with the beginning of war. To Vaughan, that only confirms why books and humanities are an important under-girding of this country's values and beliefs.

"I thought people responded with enthusiasm to the festival as one of the freedoms we enjoy," he says.

Someone so involved in a book festival would have to have a book, and indeed, Vaughan is working on one about southern culture. He confesses that despite his love of William Faulkner, he has no interest in writing a novel, but he is a closet poet.

"I'm more interested in poetry, and more inclined to write it but not publish it," he says.

Should he ever decide to do so, there's a local book fest that might be interested.

Age: 58

What brought you here? PhD program in English at UVA

What's worst about living here? Strip development, chaotic development

Favorite hangout? Home and the Outer Banks

Most overrated virtue? Prudence

What would people be surprised to know about you? I'm an introvert.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd be less intense and I'd change my handwriting.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? This organization the Virginia Foundation for Humanities and all its programs, the book festival among them.

What do people find most annoying about you? My tendency to be a perfectionist. My wife suggested that right away.

Whom do you admire? Edgar Shannon: mentor, friend and extraordinary teacher.

Favorite book? Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner

What subject causes you to rant? Talk radio the ridicule and hatred

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The extraordinary opportunities available worldwide

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? Vulgarity and violence

What do you drive? An old Bravada Oldsmobile and an even older 1969 Mustang.

What's in your car CD player right now? A With Good Reason program with Sarah McConnell

What's your next journey? Outer Banks

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? For throwing crayons out the church window when I was about four years old. I don't know why I was doing it, but I still remember it.

What do you regret? Not taking more risks

Favorite comfort food? Arch's Passion Peach frozen yogurt

What's always in your refrigerator? Carrots, apples, and milk

Must-see TV? Alias

 Favorite cartoon? Calvin and Hobbes

 Describe a perfect day. Warm, sunny, and I'm in a canoe or kayak on the James River.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I star in a Broadway musical comedy.

Who'd play you in the movie? Gregory Peck

Most embarrassing moment? I scattered an entire picnic lunch, destroying it, while my family waited and everyone else watched at the 350th anniversary of Jamestown in 1957 when I was 12.

Best advice you ever got? From my grandmother who said, when I was talking about a teacher, "Pick her brains," meaning you can learn from anybody.

Favorite bumper sticker? If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.