Robert Vaughn, dead at 82, with wife formed a formidable ‘labor team’
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When Chicago Teachers Union president Jacqueline Vaughn was getting ready for grueling contract negotiations, Robert Vaughn, her husband and a top labor official himself, would cook a breakfast of grits, bacon and eggs — food to fuel her for an all-nighter.
And so she’d have one less thing to worry about, he’d go to the garage and wash her car, too.
Mr. Vaughn — a former meat-cutter who rose to be president of Local 546 of the United Food and Commercial Workers as well as a vice president of the international union in Washington, D.C. — was proud of his wife, the first woman and first African-American to head the teachers union.
“He had his career, but he was always willing to lift up Mom in her endeavors,” said his stepson Karl T. Wright. “They were a labor team.’’
Mr. Vaughn, 82, died of heart problems Aug. 26 at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center on the South Side, according to his stepson.
Mr. Vaughn rose to the top of the UFCW, which represents workers at grocers, drugstores and health-care institutions as well as meat-cutters, processors and packers. In 2002, he helped engineer the merger of Local 546 with Local 1540, forming Local 1546.
“Once those mergers happened, we became one of the largest locals in Illinois,” said Chris Hurst, Mr. Vaughn’s assistant and a vice president of Local 1546. “We had 34,000 members.
“Bob was instrumental in contract negotiations with Jewel and Dominick’s to make sure that part-time employees had health insurance and were part of the pension plan,” Hurst said.
Mr. Vaughn worked in an office filled with photos of his wife, who died in 1994 after a decade leading the teachers union. He also kept a set of golf clubs around so he’d always be ready to play a round.
Mr. Vaughn, who retired in 2002 after a 47-year career in organized labor, started out in 1954 as a meat-cutter at an A&P grocery store.
He’d see his future wife there, taking a number to be served.
“He made sure he got her number so he would wait on her,” Wright said. “He liked to tell her long after they met and got married: ‘I always had your number.’ ’’
The Vaughns were married in 1968. It was the second marriage for both, according to Wright.
Mr. Vaughn grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Ruth and Robert H. Vaughn Sr., a steelworker. When he was 14, they sent him to Chicago to live with his aunt Sarah Hardin and her husband Leo Hardin, a Pullman porter. To earn money, he parked cars at the old London House, 360 N. Michigan, where he met jazz virtuosos including Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie.
In 1953, he graduated from DuSable High School, where he knew Don Cornelius, future creator of the groundbreaking “Soul Train” TV show. He went on to attend Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago, where he studied labor history.
His favorite sayings included: “Study and get ready, maybe your chance will come,” and “Be loyal and honest, especially to yourself, and remember that it’s lonely at the top of anything.”
At Local 1546, Mr. Vaughn managed around 40 people. He welcomed their feedback at staff meetings, Hurst said, but would wrap things up by telling them, “When we leave here, we’d best be singing out the same hymn book.”
Mr. Vaughn loved old Westerns, especially those starring Hollywood heavy Jack Palance. The 1953 film “Shane” was one of his favorites. His musical tastes favored B.B. King, Lou Rawls and the gospel of Mahalia Jackson and Rev. James Cleveland.
Though Mr. Vaughn eventually tried sushi, the former meat-cutter still didn’t think it could compare to a good steak.
He chaired the board at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 33rd and Indiana, and was active with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Southside NAACP and the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Mr. Vaughn is also survived by his children Roderick Howard Vaughn, Sharmen Marie Lett and Wendy Lynn Vaughn; sisters Vivian Vaughn, Sandra Dees, Debra Hollis, Shelia Attical and Patricia Pullom; brothers Warren Vaughn and Lloyd Evans; and four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A memorial is planned for 11 a.m. Nov. 16 in the Jacqueline B. Vaughn hall of the Chicago Teachers Union center, 1901 W. Carroll.