For as long as he can remember, Jamie Vaught has been “Crazy about the Cats.”
He has even written four books about those Cats, who are known to those who don’t live in the state as the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. In fact, the love Jamie feels for his favorite team, along with many sports, may be one of the biggest reasons for the way he overcame a difficult physical hardship to become a successful author, columnist and college professor.
Jamie was born in 1956 as a premature baby in Somerset, a small town in southern Kentucky not far from the Lake Cumberland park area. His parents quickly realized that little Jamie had something about him that didn’t seem right. “When I was about two, my parents said I was real grouchy, fussy and did not respond to talking,” Jamie said.
After Jamie’s parents were told by doctors he was “severely hard of hearing,” the family made a plan they thought would be best for his future well-being. A very important part of the plan was to decide where he would go to school. They considered the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville, a school for students with hearing impairments—and a place where he could also live. But a very small school in Science Hill, near Somerset, offered to work closely with the family to help with Jamie’s special needs. By going to Science Hill, he’d get a good education and stay at home, too.
Life became an adventure for Jamie and the ones who loved him. “I became the family project,” he said with a grin, “and my mother and grandmother would work with me almost every night. My sister was sixteen years older and got married at eighteen, so she couldn’t help on a regular basis.”
So with his family’s support, his good mind and a desire to work hard, Jamie became a very good student—all the way through college at the University of Kentucky, where he received two degrees. His success was quite surprising to some. “The doctors told my mother I would always be in the bottom third of my classes,” said Jamie, “but I was in the top third.”
It didn’t come easy, though, especially in college. “I had note-takers, some good, some bad,” he said. “There were also some teachers who had a beard, which made it hard to lip read.”
Despite the difficulties, he finished college with almost an A- average in accounting, a difficult major. It’s interesting to note that accounting was recommended for him, said Jamie, because “they said I wouldn’t have to be around other people very much.”
While at UK, Jamie joined the school’s newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. He was named the sports editor and could now report on his beloved Wildcats, whether it was the basketball, football or other teams at the school. He was in “Blue Heaven” and he knew it, but that was only a start for what came later in 1981.
Jamie received a position as a columnist for Oscar Combs’s Cats’ Pause weekly, a very popular newspaper read by thousands around the state. Despite having a severe hearing impairment, Jamie Vaught showed he could communicate to a sizeable audience—readers who looked forward every week to reading his thoughts about the Wildcats. He worked for Cats’ Pause for 13 years, and his writing got better and better.
Jamie met a lot of people in Kentucky sports who liked and trusted him. That popularity proved very important as he started writing his first book. He interviewed dozens of people about the Kentucky basketball program, and in 1991, he published his first book, Crazy about the Cats. It was a hit, selling 11,000 copies. He later wrote three more books on the subject, and they also sold well. Not bad for a person who doctors said would always be in the bottom third of his classes!
It is very difficult for Jamie, as a hearing impaired person, to write a book that relies greatly on the many oral interviews he conducts: “I get someone to transcribe the tapes, often my mother. I double-check anything that is controversial,” he said. “Sometimes, people I talk to get a little impatient with me when I have to ask them to repeat what they said. I just say, ‘Excuse me, I’m hard of hearing and I need to lip read.’ Most are really nice about it, though.”
All of his meetings must be done in person, as phone interviews are impractical. Clearly, putting together a book is not easy for Jamie, but he rightly deserves to be called an overcomer.
Besides being a fan of the Wildcats and the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jamie loves to tell about his friendship with one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Roberto Clemente. It started back in the 1960s on a trip to Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, where ten-year-old Jamie and his father saw the Reds and Pirates play.
“I was standing in the back of a crowd with my father in a hotel lobby,” Jamie explained, “and Roberto Clemente walked through. I had sent him a letter a while before that time. With everybody around him, he looked to the back of the crowd and saw me and told me to come to the front. I walked up and passed by the other fans.”
What came next will forever stick in Jamie’s memory.
“I asked Clemente if he got the letter I sent to him. He didn’t know, but he said he’d check. One week later, I received a bunch of stuff in the mail from him. He did check,” Jamie said proudly. Later, the excited young lad received an autographed bat from the future Hall of Famer, and Vaught later had his name mentioned in several Clemente biographies which were published in the 1970s.
Today, Jamie Vaught is a professor of business administration and accounting at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro, near the Cumberland Gap, where long ago many pioneer settlers entered Kentucky. Being somewhat a pioneer himself, Vaught is a faculty advisor for the school newspaper and writes for several newspapers in Kentucky.
It should be noted that though he lives in a largely silent world, Vaught’s brave way of handling his daily challenges provides encouragement to all who seek a full and productive life, regardless of the obstacles.
Steve Flairty is a life-long Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of three books, a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and two “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes,” collections of stories about ordinary people who have overcome adversity to give back to others. He will publish a version of “Everyday Heroes” for kids this summer. This piece is an excerpt from that book. Steve is a correspondent for Kentucky Monthly. His column for KyForward will appear weekly. Contact him at email@example.com.