Obituary: Vaughn Leonard Flora

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1/17/1945 – 3/17/2022
Lawrence, Kansas

Although Vaughn Flora died decades too soon for all of us who loved him, he lived a vivid and vibrant life unfolding in dazzling decades rooted in his Western Kansas heritage. His catchphrase was “I did the best I could,” but this force of nature’s best was often spectacular, generous, and daring, not to mention wildly inspiring.

We who know Vaughn would tell you of his fierce loyalty, quiet and wry humor, brilliant zest for adventure, and charming intelligence. A dapper dresser in his later years, he was never without his signature hat. Smart as a whip, he was an expert problem-solver and an innate builder and planner who lived for rehabbing yet another house or apartment building. Vaughn was always on the move, walking around and talking on the phone, working on houses, and in the last year, pouring his creativity and know-how into his new home in Lawrence. Most of all, he believed in love and was in love with life itself. 

Vaughn was born to wonderfully wise parents, Leonard and Billie (Leighton) Flora, on January 17, 1945 in Quinter, KS. He attended Quinter Elementary School, Quinter Junior High, and Quinter High School. But his schooling told only a slim slice of his story growing up in his extended family. He was a member of Future Farmers of America in high school. As a boy, he loved riding his bike five miles from the farm to the bright lights of Quinter, as well as biking ten miles to his grandparents’ home.  He was hardly ever without his best friend for life and partner in crime Neal Mann, so much so that teachers and principals simply called out, “Vaughn Neal!” whenever there were shenanigans afoot. Once Vaughn and Neal were even banned from the lunch room for the rest of the school year, which led Vaughn to sneak off to Neal’s house for lunch so that he didn’t have to tell his mom.

Vaughn’s love of singing and his beautiful bass voice won him a scholarship to Kansas State University, which he started in 1963. At the very end of that year, he married Rose Owens, also from Quinter, and they lived in Manhattan, where Vaughn began his odyssey toward an agricultural economics degree. Because Vaughn was always drawn to life’s mysteries and big questions, he left for a semester to study philosophy at the University of Kansas. He eventually returned to Manhattan and finished his original degree. Along the way, Vaughn and Rose had three children: Troy in 1964, Trent in 1966, and Trina in 1969. Vaughn and Rose later divorced. 

Vaughn’s livelihood and activism were rooted in his quest for a better world, from his involvement in the American Agricultural Movement and Kansas Farmers Union to his long stint as “the Democrat” in the Republican-controlled Kansas Statehouse to his deep interests in philosophy, socialism, and other ways people can live more sustainably and equitably. He served for 14 years as the state representative for East Topeka (District 57) in the Kansas House of Representatives. 

He worked close to the earth, loved Kansas, and wore many hats, staying in tune with his values and community. From an early job as a filling station night attendant in Quinter, he also worked as a meat inspector, drove a fuel truck, harvested wheat, farmed organically, rehabbed houses, and worked as a realtor. He was one of the founders of Kansas Organic Producers (where he was a Vista Volunteer for four years) and the Kansas Rural Center, and a longtime supporter of many ecological groups and institutes. Along the way, he lived in Collyer, Delia, Eudora, Keats, Vinland, Topeka, and Lawrence.

Vaughn’s loyalty and political chutzpah made for some memorable moments in his life. He was proud of his legislative work on farm bills to protect small farmers and his efforts to prevent more coal-powered plants, monitor air pollution, reform health care, and protect Kansas water. His lifelong passion for affordable housing led him to build T Town in Topeka, providing housing for the elderly and people with disabilities. He was also not above fighting vermin: at one point, to protect then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who was speaking at the Kansas State Fair, Vaughn scuffled with a heckling anti-choice protester dressed as a giant cockroach. Although Vaughn was banned from the state fair for life because of the incident, he had no regrets. 

In early 2010 Vaughn met Julie Michael from Lincoln, NE, through a dating app that led to lots of long phone calls. After they fell in love with each other’s voices, Vaughn drove through a snowstorm to see Julie in person on March 20, 2010, and they fell the rest of the way in love. Julie found out Vaughn was proposing when he called her one day crying that he lost his mother’s wedding ring; she rushed over to crawl on the floor alongside him until they found the ring. He was already on his knees when he asked her to marry him.

Julie and Vaughn married on Nov. 1, 2013, a crisp fall day with a bright blue sky full of yellow and red falling leaves. Their small wedding was at Vaughn’s Topeka house, where Vaughn walked Julie down the stone walkway he had built to the music of “Here Comes the Sun.” Their blow-out wedding party was held in Lawrence the following  evening, featuring the music of Jimmy Dykes and the Blistonians. 

Always curious and up for adventure, Vaughn traveled to Russia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, Cuba, throughout Europe, and to China in the last year of the Cultural revolution. His adventurous spirit led him, in the early 1970s, to live with his family caretaking an isolated ranch near Dinosaur National Park Northwestern Colorado. In the winter, he rode a horse for 38 miles each way through deep snow to pick up Christmas gifts for his children. Years later, with Julie, he embarked on many a road trip or train trek, reveling in excursions to Sedona, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and frequently to Memphis and Lincoln. 

One of Vaughn’s favorite activities was splitting wood and building fires in the stove. Julie and Vaughn spent many sweet and hilarious evenings sitting by the wood-burning stove. When the weather was warmer, by the pond he built. He also loved swimming (thus the pond). A self-acclaimed foodie and proud of it, Vaughn loved to produce and eat good, clean, organic food of all kinds. He was also passionate about singing and dancing at many music festivals. He was a captivating storyteller with a wicked sense of humor and a great laugh.

One of Vaughn’s last acts was to renovate his and Julie’s new home in Lawrence. He was proud to have incorporated all he learned over years to make a comfortable, beautiful, energy-efficient, and welcoming home. But his greatest act was his last act: showing us how to die with love and as much presence as he could muster. Although there were so many more projects he wanted to do and places he wanted to visit, he said, “It’s amazing how the things you considered important just fall away when you’re dying. What remains is love.”

Vaughn died in that spirit as the full moon set early morning on March 17th surrounded by Julie, her daughter Rebecca Nelms, and one of Vaughn’s closest friends, Dan Bentley. His long goodbye since going on hospice after being diagnosed with cancer last August allowed friends and family from near and far to say goodbye, sing, tell stories, or just hold Vaughn’s hand.

Vaughn is survived by his loving wife Julie Flora of the home as well as his children Troy Flora, Topeka; Trent Flora, Delia; and Trina Hand (J.D.), Augusta. He is also survived by his brother Jan Flora (wife Cornelia) of Ames, IA; and nieces Gabriela Flora of Denver and Natasha Flora Shoom-Kirsch (Matt) in Toronto, Canada. He had a slew of grandkids, great-grandkids and great nieces and nephews: Jessica Fisher (husband Jayson and children Zane Crouch, Rolly and Ryder Fisher); Kaylie Flora (and daughter Marlie Shae DeWald); Josie and Jett Hand; Lily Flora, and Sydney and Bailey Shoom-Kirsch. His step-kids are Rebecca Nelms (Pat) of Lincoln, NE; Danny Weisser (Ceil) of New York City; David Weisser (wife Jenny and children Elise, Marin, and Isaac) of Lincoln, NE; Dina Weisser-Holland (husband Chris and children Lilyana and Noah) of Lincoln, NE; and Debra Weisser (children Jonah and Austin) of Fort Collins, CO. Other survivors are his sister-in-law Katie Witham (husband Richard and children Katie Holt and Anna Lee) of Counce, TN.; Dan Michael (wife Debby and children Jennifer and Matthew) of Collierville, TN.; and Susan Stovall (husband Jimmy and children Little Jimmy. and Suzanne) of Memphis. He is also survived by Debby Sylvia, his assistant, who he called his guardian angel. He is preceded in death by his parents Leonard and Billie Flora.

Donations may be made to Elara Care Hospice, Kansas Democratic Party, Kansas Organic Producers, Kansas Rural Center, and Kansas Land Trust – all through Warren McElwain.

Services will be held at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, 917 Highland Dr., Lawrence, KS  followed by a burial at Oak Hill Cemetery’s Natural Burial area (section 15C). Masks and vaccinations required. You can live-stream the Celebration of Life service at Warren McElwain

In the spirit of Vaughn, who was never without his hat, we encourage everyone to wear their favorite hat.

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