For 35 years, anchor Clayton Vaughn was a familiar face on KOTV Channel 6 news. Born in Kansas and raised in Cushing, Oklahoma, he moved to Tulsa in his early 20s and established a long-running career, first in radio and then TV.
In 1999, he received the Heartland Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Oklahoma Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2001. He spent a total of two years in Los Angeles with KABC TV Channel 7. He also served as executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
Although it has been a few years since he sat behind the anchor desk, he remains widely respected within the Tulsa community. The 84-year-old is the father of four children and a grandfather to seven. Vaughn and wife Nancy, a local attorney, enjoy spending time with family, whether that involves traveling coast to coast for visits or hosting holidays in Tulsa. Fueled by curiosity in a wide array of interests, including Tulsa’s downtown art deco architecture, Vaughn’s love for learning and sharing new information is unwavering.
Where did you go to school/university? Why?
I went all the way through high school in Cushing. Then, in 1953, I went to OU. I dropped out after my sophomore year because I was doing poorly academically and my parents’ business in Cushing (a home appliance store and record shop) was failing, and I returned from school to help the family financially.
What was one of your most defining moments in life?
I was working summers and vacations at the Cushing radio station, which had gone on the air when I was in high school. This guy (William Howard Payne) built a radio station, hired a couple of professional people, but also called the principal of the high school to ask if there might be a kid who would be interested in working part time at the station. He asked the speech teacher if she knew of anyone. I had taken speech, and she talked me into it. I ended up working at the station for a long time off and on until 1958. I wasn’t full time until the last year or two. That’s what got me into broadcasting.
There was a time in this country when radio was not what it is now. Radio is niche broadcasting at this point. Before, it was a morning program and then somebody would host a program in the afternoon. Small-town radio in the ’50s would play anything it could lay its hands on to fill time, including government hand-out long-playing discs promoting things like military recruitment or National Park descriptions. The primary programming, however, was hosted by a person we would now call a disc jockey who would play recorded music (usually country) and do programs of local interest such as interviewing people who would come into the studio. But that all got taken over by a Top 40 format, which still exists today. That’s when rock ‘n’ roll came in — you played the Top 40 records. In Tulsa, KAKC played the Top 40, and the station had one opening for a news guy. That’s what they hired me for. As the news guy, I would do traffic reports where necessary, local news bulletins, a minute of sports at 20 minutes past the hour, a minute or two of headlines at 30 minutes past the hour and five minutes of news at 55 minutes past the hour where the DJ would begin another music block.
I was at KAKC from ’58 to ’64. In ’64, the guy who was the anchor at KOTV Channel 6 (Jim Hartz) got a job offer to go to New York and work for NBC. He asked the manager at the station at the time if he could break his contract. The manager agreed but told the anchor he must find a replacement. We had been friends because we were in the same business, and he called me.
What age do you feel right now and why?
I feel my actual age. You can’t feel anything else.
The one thing I have realized is I’m occasionally surprised by becoming older. When I hit 75, it was like hitting a brick wall. My reaction to it was whoa, this is new, I’m going to have to get used to this. Now, I’m having to get used to being 84. One of these days it’s not going to be fun, but so far, it has been just fine.
How would your friends describe you?
I don’t have any idea. The common sense answer about that is not to ask me but to ask my friends. If I were to describe myself, I would say that I have a lot of characteristics, but the one that probably defines my character more than anything else is curiosity. I really am interested in how the world works.
If I had it to do all over again, I might get into something like evolutionary biology or geology. I think I had a pretty good fit getting into journalism because every day you’re presented with this brand-new set of facts. From all of that stuff, some of which is related, some of which is not, you are supposed to say the most important part that you pass along to people listening to you or watching you on television.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
The one that might be surprising is that I have lived my life, generally for the last 50 years, without much cultural knowledge. I never liked or understood rock music. I never saw an episode of “Leave it to Beaver,” “Friends,” or “Cheers.” My wife and I had to binge watch “Seinfeld” because we had never seen an original episode. It’s a wonderful program.
If you didn’t pay attention to pop culture, what were you focused on?
I give away books occasionally to people I have conversations with. They are books I think they might be interested in and that I’ve read. Right now, I’m reading a book on bones — what they do, how they’re formed, what osteoporosis is, how they work in connection with the rest of your body. I’m reading a book on how Winston Churchill escaped from being captured in the Boer War in 1910. I’m reading a book about the 10 restaurants that changed America’s culinary tastes.
I’m especially interested in robotics, particularly now. You’ve got to understand robotics or you’re going to get left behind.
If you could witness any event of the past, present or future, what would it be?
There is a thing called a singularity — when machines will catch up with humans in terms of intelligence. One of the great regrets I guess I have is that I’m not going to be around for it.
What concerns you today?
Globally, looking at the broadest picture, it would be climate change. This is an area that has the capacity to doom humankind. To see the United States and other countries take the position that it is not fact-based just appalls me. It cannot be denied. It has been politicized.
Nationally, I’m concerned about the loss of media. There are no rural radio stations anymore. They are falling like flies because they can’t make money to stay on the air. Much worse than that are the newspapers. It’s a monetized digital world. A series of ghost papers like the Tulsa World is getting thinner, circulation is off and people are getting their news from, God help us, local television. TV news by its nature does not have the resources of traditional daily print journalism, that is, newspapers. There has been and remains some serious television journalism, almost exclusively on news magazine programs such as “60 Minutes.” There is no real comparison between the news available from, for instance, the New York Times and CBS. They have vastly different products. It would be a tragedy almost beyond comprehension if America should lose most of its daily newspapers, and that’s where we seem to be headed.
If you talk about media now in America, you can’t help but talk about two things that are terrifying. One of them is that people believe that just because a story is on somebody’s Facebook page, it is a believable thing. The other thing is that we have now politicized the American political media.
At the state level, I’m concerned about education.
How do you measure success?
Happiness. I’ve tried to figure out what I ought to be doing as a person for a long time, and I finally figured out years ago that the goal in life ought to be happy. Now, how you get there is another point, and I don’t care whether you get there by being charitable or just sitting back and not bothering anybody or helping some old lady cross the street. As long as you don’t hurt anybody, then what your goal ought to be is to enjoy yourself.
What is a favorite Tulsa memory?
Oklahoma teachers went on strike for the first time in 1990, and they forced the legislature, with Gov. Henry Bellmon, to adopt the program in HB 1017 that fully funded the school system. It had never been done before. The teacher strike was unprecedented; it was probably illegal, but it worked. The next year, the Oklahoma Education Association gave one of its awards to me, and I was happy to receive it. (The OEA’s Marshall Gregory Awards recognize professional and high school student reporters and their medium platforms for excellence in coverage of education issues. Vaughn’s award was for commentary during the legislative battle over House Bill 1017, the Education Reform Act of 1990, which involved, among other things, Oklahoma’s first teacher strike.)
What do you miss the most in Tulsa?
15th Street Grill. Great dinners, wonderful restaurant.
What is the craziest news story you’ve ever reported?
Crazy is one thing, but impressive is another. Impressive would have to be the Tate-LaBianca (Charles Manson family) trial case in 1970. I had just gone to Los Angeles as a weekend anchor, and one of the things I occasionally did was cover stories. I was assigned to do the opening days of the trial, and there was such a demand for seating by various television and radio stations and newspapers that the court, the judge, assigned seats for stations and newspapers out in the gallery. My seat for Channel 7 news was right next to the seat of an independent television station in LA that had sent one of its writers to cover the first days of the trial. That writer is now my wife, Nancy.