By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Four years ago, Greg Vaughn's 13-year-old daughter, Holley, came to him with an age-old problem: the-night- before-the-term-paper's-due blues.
"You've got to help me," a panicked Holley said to her dad, after apologizing for waiting until the last minute. Her assignment was to write about Sam Houston, the colorful, controversial president of the Republic of Texas.
When her father confessed that his knowledge of history--particularly Texas history--was spotty at best, Holley took a tried-and-true shortcut--writing a bone-dry report culled from encyclopedia facts.
The episode made Vaughn wonder why no one had ever bothered to come up with a way to make history, studded as it is with real-life heroes and villains, more exciting for students. "Someone should do something," he thought to himself.
That someone turned out to be him.
A lifelong entrepreneur--he paid his way through college in the '60s by selling a line of ceramic cufflinks he'd discovered on London's Carnaby Street--Vaughn had spent the past 20 years heading up a Richardson-based company that produces self-help videotapes for Christian audiences on subjects including marriage and aging. He says he knew "squat" about the education market, but that didn't deter him. "All I knew is that I wanted to make great films for kids," he says.
Judging by his success--scores of awards, hundreds of letters--Vaughn has done just that. In the last three years, Vaughn's company, Grace Productions, has produced a series of videos called In Search of Heroes--30-minute features focusing on Sam Houston, William Barret Travis, Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and others.
While the company, which is located in an industrial park east of Central Expressway in Richardson, has kept a low profile locally, it has gained much attention nationwide from teachers, students, and the media. In fact, The Quest for Freedom, about Harriet Tubman, was voted the No. 1 youth video in Booklist--the librarians' bible--and nominated for an Emmy award last year in the education division.
But who needs another Hellen Keller or Susan B. Anthony biography? Vaughn's heard the question before and is ready for it. "These are more than biographies," he says. "They are a cross between education and entertainment, told in a way to capture the attention of today's children."
The answer becomes even clearer when you watch one of the videos, which are part time-machine action adventure, part morality tale, and part history lesson. Each story begins with a modern-day teen-ager who has a problem. In the Helen Keller story, the teen-ager is a boy who lacks compassion and picks on children with handicaps. The next video focuses on a skinhead who is spun back in time to encounter Anne Frank, the Dutch girl who was murdered during the Holocaust.
These teen-agers magically find themselves inside an old, dusty library--"a place of books, a place of imagination," Vaughn says--with a wizened old librarian who acts as their moral and historical tour guide. The librarian transports them back in time, where they temporarily become a character in the hero's story--sometimes with harrowing results.
The technique sounds hokey but is actually riveting. Take, for instance, the story of Harriet Tubman, a 29-year-old slave who risks life and limb to free herself--and hundreds of other slaves--via the underground railroad. The film opens with Benjamin, a teen-ager with a bad attitude who refuses to get out of bed one morning. When his mother learns that he's decided to quit school, she throws him out of the house. While rummaging around in his closet, Benjamin finds himself transported to a library--where he meets the old librarian, whom he immediately dismisses as a "fossil."
As he tries to find his way out of the library and back into his room, he is, in an instant, transported to a plantation, where he finds himself being violently whipped by a field boss. A kindly woman named Harriet comes to his aid by telling the boss that the boy has just arrived from Africa and doesn't understand his role as a slave.
Benjamin eventually accompanies Tubman on her peril-filled journey to freedom, where he learns that in order to do something meaningful in your life, you have to have courage--courage to carry you through, even if you fail in your endeavors.
"I look about the world and see where people are hurting, where their pain is, and come up with products to address that," Vaughn says, describing his approach.
The Heroes series is expensive to produce--costing about $200,000 a film. Vaughn's company is just breaking even on the videos, thanks to the Hillcrest Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has underwritten the series.
Vaughn is more concerned with getting people to see his videos than in selling them. His on-site telemarketers contact schools, colleges, and even prisons all around the country, offering to let them show the videos once for free. The goal is to send out about 1,000 videos a week.
Only a small portion of the institutions that show the $79 videos, which come with a teacher's guide, go on to buy them. Vaughn figures that's a reflection of the fiscal realities most public-school districts face today. Based on the letters of praise he's received, quality is not the problem.
April Anderson, a librarian from South El Monte, California, told the Grace company that kids in her school liked the tapes so much, she was paying for them out of her own pocket. "I've never been able to get students interested in Black History Month," she said. "This year I showed Quest for Freedom to all classes from second to sixth. The results were unlike anything I've experienced: total concentration on the movie, being able to answer the questions, and a run on books--any books--dealing with slavery, the underground railroad, and Harriet Tubman.