Too good men — Hemphill, Vaughan leave long legacies of service

Published 10:05 pm Friday, November 16, 2018

They were different men.

One spoke and wrote freely, and often, about his experiences in the Second World War, while the other was quiet about his service, hiding away his heroism for decades. One dedicated himself to serving children at the starting line of life, while the other found his calling helping others toward the end. One found his pleasure in reading in the late hours of the night, the other preferred to swing a hammer at dawn.

But they both had hearts of service, both were passionate in the pursuit of Jesus Christ, and both left the earth within just a few hours of the other. Longtime Brookhaven School District educator and administrator Don Hemphill passed away on Nov. 6, and his friend, former Loyd Star teacher and humanitarian Peck Vaughan, died in the early-morning hours of Nov. 7.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Both were 96, and both were together for the last time at King’s Daughters Medical Center on Oct. 31.

“Daddy was going home, and he insisted we take him by Mr. Don’s room to say goodbye before he left,” said Billy Vaughn, son of Julius Edward “Peck” Vaughan. Peck’s son spells his surname differently.

Hemphill wanted their rolling hospital beds to meet, too.

“Mr. Peck always teased Dad about being older and wiser than him — they were both 96, but Mr. Peck was a few months older. Dad had just turned 96 a few days before, and he wanted to tell Mr. Peck, ‘See there? I’m the same age as you are,’” said Donna Magee, Hemphill’s daughter. “That was the last time they saw each other.”

Little differences, large similarities — both Hemphill and Vaughan were veterans, educators, church deacons, men who drew great respect from among their communities, not because they demanded it, but because they earned it. Friends and loved ones speak of them each in awe, and wonder what Brookhaven and Lincoln County will do without them.

The old gunner

Vaughan was born Feb. 5, 1922, to Thomas and Celia Vaughan, and his older sisters named him “Peck” after the mischievous child in George Wilbur Peck’s “Peck’s Bad Boy” novels. He graduated from Loyd Star and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942.

He joined Battery C of the 755 AAA Gun Battalion, part of the 98th Coastal Artillery Regiment. The regiment was based in Hawaii, but the anti-aircraft units were deployed to combat across the South Pacific, and Vaughan defended Americans from air attack at the Battle of Kwajalein in February 1944 and fought against desperate kamikaze strikes in the bloody, months-long Battle of Okinawa in early 1945.

He came home and never spoke about it.

“All our lives, he told us he was a cook in the war,” said Vaughan’s daughter, Chris Maddox, a former Loyd Star Attendance Center clerk who works in the office at the Vaughan’s family church, Macedonia Baptist. “That’s all he would say about it. A lot of men, through the years, had gathered with their war friends, but Daddy never did. He went to Veterans Day programs, but that’s it — I don’t know if he just didn’t want to remember it, or if it was just so bad.”

In 1998, when Vaughan was in his 70s, a grandson joined the Army, and the old gunner began to open up. His family took him to the National World War II Museum, and Vaughan pointed out the islands and the battles in which he took part.

“We realized then, he was not a cook,” Maddox said.

Sounds good, nail it

While on the other side of the world, Vaughan mailed home an engagement ring and a proposal to the future Verlyn Vaughan — they were married two weeks after his discharge and remained so for 58 years until her death in 2003.

Vaughan was always a church-going man — he died a deacon emeritus at Macedonia, and his son, Billy, said he’d served as deacon so long he couldn’t remember when he started.

“But he always wondered what his spiritual gift was, and he discovered it on a mission trip to Winton, California, in 1978,” Vaughn said. “After that, he said his goal was to help others.”

Vaughan would go on more than 20 other missions in his life, but perhaps his most important mission work occurred in Southwest Mississippi. He would eventually become chairman of the building committee of the local Habitat for Humanity and the face of the organization locally — some of the homes he built by himself.

He also kicked off a ministry of building wheelchair ramps for the elderly and disabled around the area. The volunteer group had built 248 ramps at the time of his death.

“He said to me, ‘Gerald, I am gonna be building wheelchair ramps, and I have an idea — I want to build one for every person in Lincoln County who needs one,’” said Gerald Hart, 79, a longtime member of Vaughan’s ramp crew. “It was surprising to me to find out there were as many people who didn’t have a way to get out of their homes. It was quite a sight to see the expression of a person’s face when they realized they were at a point where they could have a little freedom.”

Vaughan’s eyesight worsened in his later years, and he’d sit by and supervise Hart and the other builders.

“We’d be putting together a ramp and talking among ourselves, not to anybody and particular, and we’d say, ‘Well, how’s that look?’” Hart said. “And Peck would hear us and say, ‘Sounds good, nail it.’”

Carry on

Vaughan would take up donations for the ramp ministry and spend his own money when he had to — no one needing a ramp ever paid for it. In his absence, Riverwood Family, the funeral home Vaughan helped start back in 2004, is establishing a foundation to raise funds to continue supporting the ramp ministry.

“One thing Mr. Peck really showed us when he came on board was a heart of humility, always. He was willing to give, and do as much with his time as he could, and our goal is to try to keep his legacy going,” said Riverwood Family Administrator Colby McMorris.

Riverwood Family owner and director Clay McMorris worked with Vaughan in the funeral business since the 1990s.

“We were excited when a man of his caliber believed in us,” he said. “His life meant a lot, to a lot of people. We will all miss the presence of what Mr. Peck did for this community.”

Macedonia Pastor Garland Boyd called Vaughan a pillar of his church and community.

“His missions work is legendary. It will take a lot of people to come together and fill his shoes,” Boyd said. “Any time you ever thanked him, and many people thanked him over the years, he would always say, ‘Don’t thank me, thank the Lord.’ That was kind of his mantra. That’s something I heard many times.”

Something special

Hemphill was born Oct. 29, 1922, to James Jackson and May Sutton Hemphill. He graduated from Bude High School in 1942 and joined the U.S. Army after graduation. He was assigned to the 6th Engineer Special Brigade and landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy at sundown on D-Day, June 6, 1944, to clear mines and the detritus of war off the beach to make way for more troops.

He was later stationed in Antwerp, Belgium, where he survived thousands of rocket and bomb attacks by the German terror weapons, the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket. Hemphill’s time with the Army in Europe is listed in detail in his memoirs, which include a moving story about how he spent Christmas Eve 1944 standing around a coal fire in a rail yard while a black soldier — even though the Army was segregated back then — read from the Bible with a flashlight to around 30 other men.

“I do not remember why we left that warm place but I do remember there were men in that building who came to know Christ and something touched us all,” Hemphill wrote. “There was one star, in the East, that seemed the brightest of all and five men, a long way from home, knew something special happened that night.”

He also wrote down the name of the Belgian Diesbeco family, whom he and other soldiers stayed with for a night, courtesy of the Salvation Army. He kept their address for 40 years and wrote them a letter in the 1980s — one of the family’s daughters, just a teenager during the war, visited him in Brookhaven in 1990.

“He kept all that documentation. The first sentence in his book, he tells the reason he was writing about it all — because he thought people should remember what happened,” said Hemphill’s daughter, Donna Magee.

Hemphill wrote down his memories in 1993 and revised them in 2004. Throughout his life he often wrote and read, sometimes until dawn. He wrote articles for the Franklin Advocate under the name “B.N. Better,” the brand his father’s business, Homochitto Lumber Company, used to mark its wood.

He was a learner, and a teacher.

The man in charge

Hemphill married Mary Reid in 1950 and earned his bachelor’s from Mississippi College that same year, pursuing other degrees at Mississippi State and Southern Miss that would lead him into a life of education. He taught, coached, served as librarian and principal at Rosedale and Monticello before coming home to Brookhaven in 1957, where he would serve as a teacher at Brookhaven High School and, from 1967 to 1985, principal at Brookhaven Elementary School and Lipsey Junior High.

“He was one of the best history teachers you ever saw. He knew so much about it because he’d lived it,” said 80-year-old George Brumfield, superintendent of Brookhaven schools from 1981 to 1989. “I wouldn’t take anything for the years I spent with him.”

Brumfield started out in the district in 1965, rising up to superintendent while Hemphill was principal at Lipsey. It was Brumfield who later talked Hemphill into moving over to BES, and the two were close friends through their approximately 20-year run together.

“We always had the good basketball tournaments at BHS, and we had to sell tickets. The first year I was there, I said, ‘Boy, Don, I am really enjoying having this basketball tournament here,’” Brumfield recalled. “And he said, ‘I wouldn’t care if every basketball suddenly went flat.’ He had a great sense of humor.”

Brumfield invited Hemphill to his 80th birthday party — Nov. 10, four days after Hemphill’s death.

“I had called Don a week ahead of time and sent a written invitation. He had told his granddaughter he was going to my birthday party and he was gonna drive himself,” Brumfield said. “I’m just sorry he didn’t make it.”

Nobody sits there

Hemphill was also active in First Baptist Church, where was a life deacon and member of the Monday Morning Counting Committee. He was a member of the Greatest Generation Coffee Club, a group of Brookhaven veterans who meet for coffee every morning at Burger King.

One of the club’s members — 98-year-old Cecil Rhodes, now one of the club’s only two WWII veterans — was Hemphill’s friend and Sunday school teacher. He called Hemphill an “outstanding citizen.”

“I considered him a close, personal friend. Our group is going to miss him. We all had our special seats, and now there is an empty chair at Don’s table. Nobody sits there,” Rhodes said. “Of course, that’s life, you know. The Lord’s calling the roll every day, and somebody’s gonna move on.”

Though they weren’t close, Rhodes also knew Vaughan by his reputation.

“Peck had the ability to do things manually — I don’t think you could trust Don to lay out a blueprint to build a house, but you could Peck,” he said. “We’re all different, you know.”

First Baptist Pastor Greg Warnock, learned man though he is, learned something from Hemphill.

“How he lovingly served his wife as a Christian husband, especially in the last 20 years of her life, when she was disabled by strokes, has left me with the most lasting and wonderful memory of Don,” he said. “It was my honor to know him and Mrs. Mary.”