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At the end of World War II, 2nd Lt. Vaughn Boone traveled across North Africa to entertain his fellow service members waiting their turn to go home. He performed music, magic shows, mind-reading acts, hypnosis and ventriloquist routines.
“I was a showman. My job was to take them beer and be an entertainer. They called it communications so Uncle Sam would understand,” he said.
Today, at 97, music and magic tricks are still part of his life. Every Monday afternoon, you will find him and his wife, Mary Ruth Dobbins, at Arbor Acres, a retirement community near their home in Winston-Salem, N.C. Boone brings his guitar. Dobbins hands out booklets full of songs that were popular 70, 80, 100 years ago: “Ain’t She Sweet,” “You are My Sunshine” and “In the Garden.” There is no shortage of hymns.
Boone speaks to and touches the hands of each of the residents who come to hear him play.
He “makes a heart connection,” Dobbins said.
Boone volunteered for the Army Air Forces after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and spent much of the war in cryptography — “secret code stuff,” he calls it, that he wasn’t allowed to talk about at the time. When a superior officer saw the young lieutenant put on a show, he sent Boone on a tour to cheer up homesick soldiers.
“We hit every American base in North Africa,” Boone said.
He spent four years in the service, then went back to his native North Carolina, where he had put himself through college working in a local mill.
Boone went to work with a degree in chemistry as a sales representative for a dye and chemical company in Charlotte, raised a family, became an executive and eventually started his own business. Along the way, he taught Sunday school, studied spiritual healing, counseled the sick and self-published six books. He never gave up entertaining.
At Arbor Acres, Boone is backup guitarist for resident Robert Merritt. Together, they perform for a crowd of 25 to 30 assisted living residents.
Dobbins said her husband has almost perfect pitch.
“He never studied music,” she said. “He was from one of those families that grew up playing and singing. He plays the keyboard naturally. He can hear something and sit down and play it.”
But guitar is his specialty. He’s been playing since he was 14.
The sing-a-longs are good for the residents’ spirits and good for their health, Dobbins said.
The older you get and the more you slow down, the shallower your breath becomes. Singing requires the opposite.
Boone and Dobbins met in 1999 after the death of Boone’s first wife of 57 years.
When Boone, who is 28 years older than Dobbins, asked her to marry him, “I couldn’t pass up that opportunity,” she said. “Not only is he funny and clever and smart and capable — he was a farmer, then a gardener, he helped build his own house and he could work on his car and play music and do all of these things.
“But he was so humble about it. He doesn’t hold grudges. He just focuses on being at peace with the world. He is just the kindest man and always looking for the best.”
Boone calls Dobbins “my dear wife.” He likes to be called by his first name. “Mr. Boone,” he said, “was my daddy.”
Boone grew up on a farm. The house didn’t have radio or electricity. They made their own music and their own fun. Each of his uncles played an instrument. One of them put on magic shows that included hypnosis, and he offered to show his young nephew the tricks of the trade.
Boone discovered ventriloquy when a traveling salesman came to town promising a ventriloquist dummy to whomever could put on the best performance.
“I wanted it so bad I couldn’t sleep,” Boone said.
He fashioned his own dummy out of wood for practice.
“I practiced with my dog until the dog started looking at the puppet,” he said. “I won the dummy.”
Boone still has the head of that prize. The body wore out decades ago. But Boone, the ventriloquist, is still at it. Sometimes, to mix things up, he’ll bring a new dummy — his newest one is named Oscar — and his magic tricks to Arbor Acres.
Boone will put on an hour show for a large church audience in Winston-Salem this month.
“Part will be my music. There’ll be some magic and some of the stories of my life,” Boone said in a telephone interview from his home.
Earlier that morning, he’d plucked tomatoes and okra from the couple’s garden. Then he’d gone to the YMCA to work out for an hour or so.
Soon, he and Dobbins would get ready for that afternoon’s performance at Arbor Acres.