Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Remembering Jim Vaughan

PHMC’s former Executive Director and State Historic Preservation Officer, Jim Vaughan, passed away on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

Jim Vaughan (May 27, 1943 – April 23, 2020)
Jim was appointed as Pennsylvania’s State Historic Preservation Officer and PHMC’s Executive Director in November 2011.

He left retirement to serve the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Before retiring, Jim had spent decades working in the history and preservation communities at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Hermitage, and many other institutions across the country. Jim retired from PHMC in July 2017.

Jim Vaughan became executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission just when it needed him most. His deep experience in historical institutions allowed him to speak with authority. His political acumen enabled him to balance the needs of competing constituents. His high emotional intelligence gave him the insight to identify and cultivate talent and motivate staff to achieve their personal best. Read more…

Nancy Moses, Chair, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission

Jim had a tremendous ability to create opportunities and find solutions while navigating the through state government. When Jim wanted to complete a new initiative, he created a team of PHMC staff from all levels – not just management but new employees from an archivist to a curator to a historic preservation staff to a custodial guide. And he provided the space to allow them to contribute and guide the decision making process.

From a historic preservation perspective, this was best illustrated in his effort to list the William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives complex on the National Register of Historic Places.

PA State Museum and Archives, Harrisburg, PA

Prior administrations and commissioners objected to this level of recognition but Jim stuck to his “preservation ethic” developed over a long career as a site administrator and vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

This group effort launched a new appreciation for the complex resulting in a series of exhibits celebrating both the complex and mid-century architecture throughout Pennsylvania. Jim did not take credit but he was assuredly the guiding hand behind these efforts!

He performed similar feats with the collections inventory project and the Archives construction project. And he created partnerships outside PHMC with other PA state agencies (such as the “A Fondness for Birds” exhibit with DCNR, DEP, Fish and Boat, and Game Commission) and revitalizing the Cultural and Historical Support Grant program to assist museums and county historical societies throughout Pennsylvania.

Jim Vaughan, right, with Governor Tom Wolf in June 2017.
Jim was a strong supporter of the PA SHPO.

He encouraged our office to grow, challenge ourselves, and embrace the opportunities that came our way, no matter how small they may be.

Jim’s “roll-up your sleeves” leadership style was an inspiration to SHPO staff and he personally encouraged me to be creative in promoting preservation outcomes. I admired how he valued the power of relationship building and his friendly approach to all constituents and situations.

Andrea MacDonald, Director, Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer

Several members of PA SHPO’s staff remember working with Jim and had these thoughts to share about his time with PHMC.

When we were first asked to share our memories of Jim, I thought there was little that I could say that had not already been said. But as I read the entries on his obituary page from all across the country, I realized that is why so many have taken the time to write something – because we all share such a similar impression of Jim. 

Despite his position as the Commission’s executive director, my memories of him are almost invariably off-the-clock, in social settings like a conference reception or at one of the many PHMC Happy Hours that we spent at the Sturges Speakeasy. He made everyone feel at ease and appreciated, seemingly giving everyone his genuine attention, regardless of whether they had just met or had known each other for many years. The world needs more people like Jim Vaughan, and that is why losing him has affected us so much.

Bryan Van Sweden, PA SHPO Central Region Community Preservation Coordinator

I was very impressed when, just a month or two after becoming PHMC’s Executive Director, Jim was on the spot to give an interview at the Farm Show about the marker program and the scavenger hunt.  He was cool as a cucumber and did a great job! 

Karen Galle, PHMC Historical Marker Program Coordinator
Jim Vaughan, left, with Howard Pollman and Karen Arnold at the PA Farm Show.

Jim Vaughan was highly approachable, particularly for someone as busy as he was and in the position he held. When Jim Vaughan talked to you, he looked you straight in the eye and at eye level …and considered what you had to say.

Doug McLearen, PA SHPO Division Chief, Environmental Review

I would like to say that I always looked forward to Jim’s visits to Western PA. He was originally from nearby West Virginia and with a twinkle in his eye liked to talk about his experiences in the area. His great good humor, intelligence, and kindness will be sorely missed. I’m very sorry to hear about his passing.

Bill Callahan, Western Region Community Preservation Coordinator

Others commented on his love of travel and experiences across the globe.

Jim was a big fan of happy hours with the PHMC staff, where he loved to share stories of the travels he and his wife, Janet, took to our National Parks (they were always trying to add new ones to their long list of parks visited) and many European countries. Italy was a favorite destination. His enthusiasm was catching, influencing future trips I’d like to take, and he also loved to hear our stories of our favorite places.

In Jim’s career with the National Trust he helped secure an easement and great new owners for the Fisher House, a wonderful Louis Kahn design. I was grateful for the opportunity Jim created to visit the Fisher House with several other PHMC colleagues—it was such a treat. Jim had a generous and open spirit, and cherished the places he experienced and the people who he met along the way.

April Frantz, PA SHPO National Register Reviewer
Louis Kahn’s Fisher House, Montgomery County, PA.

For me, Jim Vaughan was more than an executive director. During and after his tenure, he became a special friend and mentor for me.

But what I miss most about losing my dear friend is the opportunity to sit back with a cold pint and a tall glass of Malbec and discuss upcoming travels to a new destination. Jim and his wife Janet were inspired travelers and wonderful storytellers about how they planned their trips (I loved that Janet would assign Jim books to read about an upcoming destination) and what they encountered on their travels (especially the food and wine).

Though the prospect for international travel is limited at the moment, I am looking forward to the next time I pass through customs in a foreign country and the customs agents stamps my passport. That stamp will serve as an affirmation of Jim’s inspiration to never stop exploring and to never stop learning.

Scott Doyle, PA SHPO Division Chief, Preservation Incentives

Perhaps Jim’s most valuable contribution to PHMC was to make PHMC staff reassess and appreciate that we are surrounded by creative and committed colleagues who value the opportunity to preserve and promote the incredible history of Pennsylvania.  

Read more of Jim’s obituary here.


  1. Pamela Reilly

    What a wonderful tribute to a respected, admired and inspirational leader in the preservation world. We were lucky to have him at the PHMC. Jim influenced many and left a lasting mark here in Harrisburg. He will be missed and remembered fondly by his colleagues here. His optimism, warmth and ability to connect with others really set him apart. Sending deepest sympathy to his family and wide circle of friends–

  2. Serena Bellew

    I was and still am so very sad and rather shocked to hear of Jim’s passing. While i only worked for him for two short years, we became friends and i too thought of him as a mentor. He was without question the best boss I ever had-he trusted my judgement and professional experience completely and that is a rare gift that i have never had before or since. After reading SHPO staff’s comments-i agree, Jim’s greatest gift was his approachability and the way he made everyone feel welcome to join him for an after-work get together. I loved his travel stories too! I will miss him very much and never forget the things he taught me or the positive impacts he had on my life.

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