LIMA — Twenty-seven-year-old Cleo Vaughn was ready for a new challenge in May 1961.
“I’m ready to go to work,” Vaughn told Lima Citizen sports columnist Gene Perine on May 4, 1961.
“Vaughn, one of the all-time greats at Lima Central, made all-state teams two straight years in basketball, football and baseball,” Perine wrote. “He was a regular for the Ohio State basketball Buckeyes as a sophomore, went into the New York Yankees chain with a $4,000 bonus and played two years with the Class B Modesto Reds in California and wound it up by averaging 31 points a game as a guard for Alabama A&M.”
Now, Vaughn was “facing as big a challenge in his chosen field as he ever did on the court, gridiron or diamond,” Perine wrote. “Vaughn has selected social work as his vocation and he’s armed with a recent diploma from Alabama A&M. … He has offers for jobs in Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Detroit and Columbus but won’t make a decision until the fall.”
Vaughn ultimately started his social work career in Lima, the same place he started his athletic career, a career that saw him become the first African-American to play varsity basketball for Ohio State.
Vaughn was born Feb. 28, 1933, in Athens, Alabama, to Edward and Carolyn Vaughn. He moved to Lima early in life and lived at 315 N. Rosedale Ave., with his mother and stepfather, the Rev. Robert D. Blackburn.
At Central High School, Vaughn “was most widely heralded as a prep cager,” the Lima News wrote Dec. 20, 1964, in an article looking back on Vaughn’s athletic career. “He was named first team All-Ohio by First and Ten magazine and accorded second and third team honors his senior year by INS and AP news services. Vaughn also received all-state mention in football and baseball.”
In the same article, Lyle Barber, a former Central basketball coach said, “Vaughn was definitely a team leader and a team man.”
Vaughn demonstrated that leadership at the end of his sophomore season at Central in March 1950. “Vaughn, who paced the Dragons to a win over Van Wert in the sectional basketball tournament at Ada Thursday night, suffered a fracture at the top edge of his lower jaw bone,” the News reported. “The athlete will be out of action for some time and his loss will be felt by the Central team which collides with Findlay Saturday night in the tourney finals.”
Central lost to Findlay, but Vaughn “playing with improvised headgear over a fractured jaw … was outstanding,” the News reported. “Not once did he shirk in rebounding or diving after the ball.”
In both 1951 and 1952, Central would come within a victory of the state’s final four. After a 64-56 loss to Toledo Central Catholic in March 1952, the News wrote that it was “the end of the line” for eight Central seniors, foremost among them Vaughn. “No. 40 will long be associated with Cleo Vaughn, a 6’ 3” center who set new Central records for the (1) season, (2) per-game average, (3) single game high and (4) three-year total,” the News noted March 18, 1952.
His senior year at Central was nowhere near the end of the line for Vaughn, who had caught the eye of Ohio State’s coaches. “Cleo Vaughn and Jack Campbell, two leaders of one of Central high’s most successful all-sports years in history, will continue their educations and athletics at Ohio State University,” the News reported June 25, 1952. “Vaughn, on an athletic scholarship, said that he will definitely try to win berths on the basketball and baseball teams, although he is doubtful about playing football. He will study dentistry.”
On Dec. 5, 1953, Vaughn started as a sophomore and scored 13 points in the Buckeyes 93-78 win over Butler. That same season, Ohio State traveled to Miami, Florida, in the still-segregated South, for a game against the Hurricanes, a game Vaughn recalled in a 2010 interview with a writer for the online Bucknuts web site.
At the team hotel, Vaughn said, “whites went in the front door, the black guy went in the back. I had to eat my meals in my room. But it was my best game at Ohio State.”
On Jan. 14, 1954, after only a handful of games, News sports editor Allan White revealed that “a knee injury has put a crimp in Cleo Vaughn’s basketball fortunes …” Vaughn had injured the knee in the game against Butler and had attempted to play through the injury. That was the end of Vaughn’s Ohio State career. “The next fall I went back to Ohio State,” Vaughn told the Bucknuts writer, “but it was a combination of academics and basketball — I just wasn’t interested anymore.” Vaughn joined the Army, but didn’t stop playing basketball.
In a Nov. 6, 1956, column in the News speculating on Vaughn’s return to Ohio State after his discharge from the Army, White noted, “Last winter, Vaughn played in Europe and his team was runner-up in the All Army tournament. … The year before he was at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, where, by strange coincidence, more than one big-time college basketball player showed up in their special service unit.”
White speculated that “Cleo has a lot of ground to recover. … A jammed knee early in his sophomore year put him in a hole, and an ensuing clash with Coach (Floyd) Stahl didn’t help matters. … And behind it all was the burden of knowing that he was the first Negro in Ohio State’s 54-year basketball history to make the varsity.”
Vaughn did not return to Ohio State. “Upon leaving the service,” the News reported Dec. 20, 1964, “Vaughn inked a $4,000 bonus contract with the New York Yankees and spent two years with Modesto in the California State League. From there, it was on to Alabama A&M where he averaged 31 points per game as a guard (he played pivot in high school). He also was a member of the A&M football squad.”
On May 21, 1962, Allen County hired Vaughn to direct the welfare department’s “self-help” program designed to put welfare recipients to work and aimed at “south Lima’s slum area.” During this time, Vaughn also became program director at Mizpah Mission and worked with Bradfield Center. And he found time to continue playing basketball for city recreation league teams and local all-star teams.
As a member of the Area All Stars in May 1962, Vaughn played an exhibition game against the Fabulous Buckeyes, comprised of Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell, Bob Knight and Gary Gearhart. Vaughn also suited up for annual games against the New York Harlem Satellites, described by the News as “a clowning basketball team.”
Vaughn also spoke regularly to service clubs and youth groups about the problems of race. Speaking Sept. 30, 1963, to a youth group at Sharon Park Evangelical United Brethren Church in the wake of violence in Birmingham, Alabama, Vaughn said, “The law is a foundation on which to build, but the law cannot make me like you, or you like me.”
Vaughn left Lima in December 1964 for a job with the Community Action for Youth Program in Cleveland. Vaughn, however, stayed in touch. In February 1965, the News reported Vaughn was scouting Cleveland high school teams for Shawnee.
Vaughn would go on to work in several cities before settling in Toledo where he was involved in “various forms of community service,” according to the Bucknuts story, and starting in 1979 ran a popular basketball camp.
He died June 29, 2010, and is buried in Forest Cemetery in Toledo. His sons, Tommy and Mark, formed the Cleo Vaughn Sports Group to help youth in his honor.