Published March 8, 2019

By Matthew Gibson

Robert C. Vaughan III—Virginia Humanities’ founder and president—passed away Wednesday evening.

While many of us knew Rob as the head of Virginia Humanities for forty-three years, he was, of course, so much more than a leader of an organization. He was Virginia’s cultural visionary for more than four decades. His leadership and love of the humanities became, and continue to be, a model that inspires others across the country. But at the core of his love for the humanities was Rob’s love of people. He was ingenious and accomplished, but most important, and no matter who you were, he deeply cared about what you thought and felt and was always willing to give generously of his time. He was a loving and wonderful husband to Ellen and father to Hailey, Lizza, and “young” Rob. But above all, he adored his grandchildren Holden, Schuyler, and Dylan. Every story he told would eventually lead back to talking about those three boys.

Rob’s passion for education and ideas and his belief in the power of the humanities was noticed by Edgar Shannon, the president of the University of Virginia and Rob’s friend, teacher and mentor. On a fateful day in January 1974, President Shannon asked a thirty-year-old Rob Vaughan if he’d like to build an organization to “discuss ideas to engage more people on the humanities in Virginia.” What you need to understand about Rob—and this is probably critical to his success and the joy he was able to give to so many others—is that he didn’t really believe in the word “no.” And because he didn’t say no, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities was born that day.

Armed with a mix of endless optimism, faith, and a ceaseless desire for innovation, he created an organization that went from two people in 1974 to forty-three people when he retired in 2017. Through his leadership, the VFH (as it was known throughout his tenure) supported thousands of projects across the Commonwealth with grants and created programs reaching millions that continue to help us build stronger communities through a better understanding of our history, literature, tradition, and society.

Rob believed that each one of us needs to understand the past fully in order to build a promising future. He believed in the importance of the individual stories that make up our common past. And by “our”, I mean everyone’s. Having grown up in a family that fought Virginia’s racist policies of Jim Crow and Massive Resistance, Rob infused his belief in racial equity, in telling the full history of Virginia, into the organization’s work. He created the first programs in Virginia dedicated to African American and to Virginia Indian history and heritage. These programs have helped shape our state’s understanding of a much more honest and complete story about the history of our state, region, and nation.

Rob didn’t just love his work at Virginia Humanities, he lived it. The DNA of Virginia Humanities is Rob’s DNA. His guiding hand can be seen in each action taken. His passion is felt in every program, event, and interaction.

In thinking about Rob—his life and now afterlife—I’m reminded of a particular line from John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls: “any man’s death diminishes me, / because I am involved in mankind.” Rob Vaughan was indeed involved in, and lived for, humankind. And while he is no longer with us in body—statuesque frame, musical voice, and that trademark full head of silver wavy hair—he planted seeds that have grown and will continue to grow into a bountiful and beautiful harvest.

We miss you, dear man, so much more than these or any number of words and crafted sentences could ever say.


A memorial service will be held Wednesday, March 13, 2019, at 1 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville.

Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.