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Cantankerous centenarian

Lavishly lauded on the cusp of his 100th birthday for his probing scholarship at Southern Oregon University, his authorship of 17 books and his “curmudgeonly” (his word) defense of his views, Vaughn Bornet showed his skill as a standup comic Thursday before a large Rotary audience in Ashland.

The most-asked question of Bornet — a man who doesn’t care for organic food and likes a shot or two of Irish whiskey at the end of the day — is how he lived so long.

It’s because he always has another book or two in his head and needed to keep working on them, he said in an interview.

“I really believe, when I went to the retirement home four years ago, that I planned to use it as a home for my work. I’m the only one there who wants to continue with life,” he notes. “The rest of them came to get rid of life.”

Sure of his research and strong in his will, Bornet in 1966 came to the defense of an assistant English professor who was fired after declining the college president’s demand that he sign a state-mandated loyalty oath. The president then fired Bornet. The case, said retired journalism Professor Tom Pyle, went to a state court, which ruled the requirement unconstitutional, upholding the instructor. The president apologized to Bornet and asked his forgiveness.

“He’s cantankerous and opinionated, but he’s always right,” said Pyle. “He refers to himself as 'an idealistic outlander.'”

In an afternoon of light spirits, his longtime neighbor Mayor John Stromberg said he was building a driveway when Bornet, in a stentorious pronouncement, said he needed to build in a drain channel for rain, a strategy that soon saved flooding. The story, typical of Bornet, drew howls. Stromberg built a plaque in bricks honoring Bornet.

“He is incredibly sharp. We can only dream of remembering so much and being able to write it,” said Ellie Holty, a hospice caregiver for his late wife — and editor of his recent books. “He loves reading. He’s having a good time and engages with everyone. He insists on remaining relevant.”

Jac Nickels told the gathering, “His integrity is great. He speaks his mind and continues to share his wealth of knowledge.”

“He epitomizes long life and great scholarship,” said Elizabeth Zinser, former president of SOU.

Bornet, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Emory University, then a doctorate in history from Stanford University in 1951, came to then-Southern Oregon College in 1959 as a professor. He taught 23 different courses in various departments, with history his first love. He was a Navy officer in World War II, worked for RAND Corporation, the American Medical Association and Encyclopedia Britannica — and wrote noted biographies of presidents Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson.

In 2008, Bornet learned the internet and started publishing articles on History News Network. Some titles include “Remember those Notorious Anti-Semite ‘Protocols’ are Fiction!” “Historians Should Stop Being Embarrassed by Our Wars,” “Let’s Consider Those Candidates While There’s Still Time” (in January 2016), and “The American Press Has Served Us Well.”

His book, “Seeking New Knowledge: A Research Historian’s Rewarding Career,” was published this year. The year before, he published “Speaking Up For America,” a collection of speeches he delivered from 1963 on, many on the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and in citizenship swearing-in days, with one printed in full in the Daily Tidings. Preceding those was a volume of love letters between him and his wife during World War II.

Bornet is working on a tome on James Butler, “An Illustrious Cavalier Character,” who fought Cromwell in the 17th century for Kings James II and Charles II in England.

Bornet and his late wife, Beth, had two children and six grandchildren. He will attend parties with kin and friends Tuesday, his actual birthday.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.