Some people are planners.
Some people are more like Jim DeVaughn, who even at age 7 was game for most anything. No plan necessary.
When his buddies would pull up to his New Jersey house, Jim would hop on his blue Schwinn 5-speed. The boys would head for the creek, or for one of the town’s Revolutionary War-era iron mines, riddled with sand-filled sink holes.
They’d find their own adventures.
When the family moved to northern Virginia one rainy August morning, Jim settled in and followed his heart. He ended up at the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology; while many children prepare for years to gain entrance to this prestigious high school, Jim had applied simply because he “kind of wanted to be around other nerdy kids.”
As it turns out, it wasn’t the fine tech labs Jim embraced. He practically lived on the beat-up green couch in the school’s music wing. It felt like home. So he joined concert and show choirs, madrigal and men’s groups, and was “into a capella before it was cool,” he said.
He applied to Virginia Tech, mostly because his older sister was already there, and the mountains reminded him of the scenic Poconos where his family vacationed every summer.
And when he was accepted, he agreed to pursue engineering, but only because schools usually make you come up with a plan whether you’re inclined to or not.
“So I limped through a mechanical engineering degree while clinging to music,” he said. He sang in the campus Methodist foundation’s outreach choir. He slapped together audition material for a competitive traveling show group called the New Virginians—- he sang Cruella de Vil— and he got in. He was part of a jazz vocal group, and an a capella group that sang at Kings Dominion in the summers. It was glorious.
As he neared the end of his tenure in Blacksburg, peers were applying to graduate school or talking to job recruiters. Jim was living in the basement of the Methodist house with a handful of friends. “We thought we might make a go of this music thing,” he said. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
He paid the bills by doing temp work and driving a Blacksburg Transit bus. And when a friend said he could get the singers a gig at a theme park near Disneyland in California, Jim packed a bag.
“We were making demo tapes and thinking, ‘We’re going to Hollywood!” he said.
It didn’t last long. But it was a blast. Jim remembers eating turkey and stuffing back stage at the theme park because it was the holiday season.
And he remembers catching a red-eye home to Fairfax on Christmas Eve, not really sure what the day after Christmas held in store for him.
“But it was okay,” he said. “I have always been someone who is content to be in the place where I’m at.”
Jim’s friends started to get married and have kids. Jim was the “crazy uncle. It was hard for me to imagine having kids myself.”
Then, Jim’s mother died, on September 6, 2001, after a long battle with breast cancer. The funeral was on September 10, a day before the towers fell. By this point Jim had fallen into “my first real, grown-up, full-time job, with benefits,” he said. He was 29 and providing tech/engineering support for the United States Air Force Band.
Jim moved home to be with his dad, partly to save money and partly so the two could support one another in their grief. His mom had been the communicator in the family, so dealing with her loss was tough on multiple levels. He sought out therapy, which helped a lot. “I learned how to breathe and how to stop. How to listen.”
His “second act” of sorts began, Jim says.
He met Anne, through mutual friends. They didn’t click at first, but then they met again. They were married 364 days after that second connection. They eloped on the stage of the high school where Anne was teaching theatre, and then held a more formal ceremony months later in Anne’s hometown. A nod, perhaps, to the dual “live in the moment” and “honor tradition” that inhabit them both.
Their two girls were born in 2008 and 2011.
Jim’s sister suffered a massive stroke several years later. Then his father died.
Real life. Adult stuff. It came hard and fast.
“I’ve done a lot of growing up,” he said. “But in other ways, I’ve been ‘growing down.’ By that I just mean, having kids brings me back to my inner child.”
The tough stuff of adulthood is always there, of course. An internal drive to plan ahead and manage kid schedules, work, and money doesn’t come naturally to Jim, still.
But “sometimes we’ll be at dinner, and the kids will say something insightful or funny, and I look at Anne and I really see her, and I feel this deep euphoria. I think, ‘Wow. I want to put this moment in a bottle.’”