When Gwilymn “Skip” Vaughn learned at age 64 that a birth defect he’d carried his whole life suddenly would keep him from walking, the South Tacoma activist felt sorry for himself for just a moment.
Then, “he persevered. Nothing stopped him. He learned how to get around,” said his wife of 60 years, Laura Vaughn.
To Tacoma’s lasting benefit, that same spirit helped Vaughn fight years of civic battles to give neighborhood groups a seat at the table in city decision-making and to preserve some of the last open space in his neighborhood.
His friends and loved ones have been toasting those accomplishments since Vaughn, 81, died Wednesday.
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“He was kind of the person who was at the forefront, absolutely dogged and committed in the very best way to the public good,” said former Mayor Bill Baarsma, who worked with Vaughn to preserve the undeveloped land that became Wapato Hills Park near the Tacoma Mall.
Vaughn, a 1952 graduate of Lincoln High School, was a prominent activist and Tacoma Public Utilities Board member in the 1990s and early 2000s.
His lifeblood was South Tacoma and the city. He loved the city.
He is survived by his wife, Laura, their two children and four grandchildren.
Vaughn remained active in the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council, a group he founded, through last year. The city’s website still lists him as the point of contact for the organization and he was a regular resource in its newsletters.
“His lifeblood was South Tacoma and the city; he loved the city,” said Stephen Fisher, an attorney who worked closely with Vaughn to preserve Wapato Hills and to launch the neighborhood council.
In 1989, Vaughn retired from a 37-year career at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and turned his attention to local politics.
His first fight centered on shrinking a proposal that would have brought 400 apartments to a 30-acre site in South Tacoma. He worried it was too big. The Air Force had concerns, too, because it would have been along a flight path to what was then McChord Air Force Base.
Vaughn’s group of neighborhood activists won, persuading the City Council to choose a smaller project.
“We helped change our neighborhood and protect our neighborhood,” he told The News Tribune in 2000. “It was very satisfying.”
In the early 1990s, Vaughn joined with Baarsma and Northeast Tacoma activist Marion Weed to write the ordinance that created official neighborhood councils, bestowing on them an advisory responsibility for city decisions.
His next campaign left a permanent legacy in South Tacoma. It was a five-year effort to preserve the open space known as Wapato Hills, which had long been eyed for development because of its proximity to the mall and Interstate 5.
This is my turf. This is my city.
Skip Vaughn in a 2000 interview
Vaughn played in an important role in bring neighborhood groups in county with the city, parks district and Tacoma Public Utilities to protect the land.
He had grown up playing there, and he didn’t want to see it turned into subdivisions.
“It’s an oasis,” he once told The News Tribune.
Securing the property required a combination of state grants and local fund raising. When they looked just short of their goal, Skip and Linda Vaughn contributed more than $300,000 of their own money to finish the project.
The gift is one of the reasons a playfield in Wapato Hills is named after the couple.
Over the years, the people who worked with Vaughn described him as an uplifting person who could bring people together. That’s one of his legacies, too.
“We owe Skip a great deal in terms of how he represented himself and his community,” said Jack Wilson, the executive director of Metro Parks Tacoma. “It was always in a constructive, positive manner.”
A funeral service for Skip Vaughn will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday (April 5) at Mountain View Aspen Chapel, 4100 Steilacoom Blvd SW, Lakewood.