The Bar’s oldest active attorney, WJ (Jackson) Vaughn, at 105, is a living testament to the history of the profession
At 105, William Jackson Vaughn is the oldest active member of The Florida Bar. One of my favorite songs is by The Judds. In it, the country duo sweetly croon, “Grandpa, tell me ‘bout the good old days.” That song keeps playing in my head as I reflect on my recent conversation with Mr. Vaughn by telephone at his office, where he still reports to the WJ Vaughn Law Firm in Melbourne several times per week with the assistance of his daughter, Elise Vaughn, who is also an attorney. He has difficulty hearing now and relied heavily on headphones and his daughter during our call. However, he proudly told me that he was able to work full time until he had a stroke two or three years ago.
“I do a lot of sleeping now, at the wrong times. I want to sleep in the daytime and stay awake at night,” he drawled in a Southern accent that reminded me of pecan trees, molasses, and sweet tea.
When I asked him why he keeps coming into the office, he said, “That’s all I’ve known for so long, but things are different now.” His daughter told me that he also enjoys an occasional game of Solitaire on his computer.
WJ Vaughn was born in 1914 to William G. Vaughn and his wife, Pearl. His family calls him Jackson, which was his mother’s maiden name. He was born in the cotton fields of Dooly County, Georgia. When I told him that I began my teaching career in that area two decades ago, he proclaimed, “You’ve been there!” He went on to explain that he tells most everyone that they have been to his birthplace, because his extended family still owns the 200-year-old farm between Vienna (properly pronounced VIE-enna) and Cordele through which Interstate-75 now runs.
“Right up 75, there’s an old church on the right. That’s where my mama’s family was raised and where I was born.”
Mr. Vaughn moved with his family from Georgia to Florida when he was nine, he suspects because of the economy. They spent a year in Orlando before settling in Melbourne in the early twenties. His father attended Emory College in Atlanta, but did not go to law school. Instead, he studied at home and learned the law with the help of local attorneys, including one prominent lawyer, Mr. David Peel. Mr. William G. Vaughn was a charter member of Kiwanis Club and a member of the Melbourne Hunting and Fishing Club. The practice started by his father in 1924 is the same one that Mr. Jackson Vaughn and his family own today, though he pointed out that the building has changed.
Mr. Vaughn is a proud Gator. There is a charming photo of him online from 2017 with University of Florida basketball coach Mike White, both men covered in orange and blue. Mr. Vaughn graduated from UF Law in 1939 and began practicing with his dad, who he says was his mentor. From January 1942 until January 1946, he served in the Navy during World War II. Afterwards, he picked up where he left off with the firm. They did mostly real estate development, mortgages, probate, and served as the city attorneys for 36 years. His father died in 1951, and he carried on the family legacy.
In 1946, upon returning from service, Mr. Vaughn met Miss Elaine Waring, the daughter of an old Brevard County family which had been in the area since the Civil War. “The first time I met her, I never made a date again with any other girl.” They married that year and bought a house shortly afterwards. He is still living in that same house where they raised their six children, three of whom became attorneys. “Our oldest is deceased, one is an attorney in Texas, and our youngest, Elise, works for me.”
Mrs. Vaughn died in 2011 at 87, just one day short of the couple’s 65th wedding anniversary. An Orlando Sentinel article commemorating her death points out that she was the first female drum major at the Florida/Georgia football game parade in Jacksonville. She also once created a 50-foot-long needlepoint depicting the 12 tribes of Israel for the chapel at Melbourne’s First United Methodist Church.
Mr. Vaughn said that practicing law has been quite pleasant most of the time. He says that attorneys should have high ethics, have pretty high standards, they should be looked up to, and they should be well thought of in the community.
“Back then, when I started, there were a limited number of attorneys in Brevard County, and we helped each other. There was competition, but it was with respect.”
When asked about his definition of professionalism, he stressed that it is important that attorneys be honest and never mislead people. “If you can’t help the client, give the case to someone else.”
The biggest change in the legal profession to him has been the sheer increase in the number of attorneys and the number who go into personal injury law and cases involving big fees.
“There is a lot of competition these days. Build a good reputation for yourself. In the old days, everyone knew everyone else. Now, I don’t get around as much, so I don’t know as many attorneys.”
He stressed again, with a sense of nostalgia, “I knew everybody personally in those days.”
As for his age, Mr. Vaughn said that he is the only one in his family with his type of longevity, except for an aunt who lived to be 99.
The key to his long life?
“The Good Lord, I guess. I never smoked or drank. When I was older and had a heart attack, I began walking every day, and I think that helped.”
For more information on Mr. William Jackson Vaughn’s life and career, the Brevard Historical Commission published a 2017 oral history interview by Bob Gross, which can be accessed on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX4iT1uUKfU.
Rebecca J. Bandy serves as director of The Florida Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism. She joined the center as assistant director in March 2017. Prior to joining The Florida Bar, she was an associate attorney at the Law Offices of Thomas L. Powell, P.A., in Tallahassee, where she litigated in the areas of family and criminal law. She earned her J.D. from the Florida State University College of Law. This column originally appeared in the center’s newsletter, The Professional.