County Faces: Vaughn McLaughlin of Fort Fairfield

David Marino Jr., Special to County Faces , Special to The County
4 years ago

As a young man, Vaughn McLaughlin loved music and basketball more than anything. Decades later, he said he’s been blessed with the opportunity to turn these childhood interests into a lifelong career.


By day, the Fort Fairfield resident is the band director at Caribou High School, a position he has held for nearly 35 years. By night, he is on the court, passionately calling out maneuvers to his players in his role as the Fort Fairfield boys basketball coach.

The son of a father who was a post office worker and potato farmer, and a mother McLaughlin describes as an “incredible” homemaker, he was born in Caribou in 1959, the oldest of six. 

At McLaughlin’s core is a relentless desire to spread the powerful message of music education. For him, understanding music theory and knowing how to play an instrument does not just assist you culturally. It makes you a more intelligent and well-rounded person.

This feeling is not just personal. It’s backed up by what he calls a “significant” amount of research. These include studies from researchers at the University of Southern California, the University of Montreal, as well as one published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

“There’s a pile of brain research out there that shows those kids score higher in every content area,” McLaughlin said. “It just makes smarter kids.”

McLaughlin said that the kids who go through his program receive an education that goes far beyond musical notation. He has always made a point about teaching students life lessons, such as how to behave and dress in a public setting and communicate with their peers.

He also points to the “democratic principles” that he sees in music that apply to real-life situations. Just as in the real world, playing in a group requires you to listen to others while maintaining a voice of your own.

“You learn so much about being a human from playing music,” McLaughlin said. “That’s why I work so hard to get kids to understand it.”

McLaughlin might not have ended up in his career of choice had he not been inspired early on by both mentors and family.

He recalled receiving trombone lessons from Dale Huff at a young age. Like many trying to learn a new instrument, he was having trouble getting to where he wanted to be. Coming home distraught, he told his mother he wanted to stop taking lessons immediately. But his mother gave him a response that was strong and reassuring. 

“You are going to do this. Just keep working,” she said. 

Staying with his lessons, McLaughlin eventually excelled in high school, joining Fort Fairfield Middle High School’s band under Don Hamalina, who he said truly taught him his love of music, along with playing on the basketball team and helping with the family farm. 

Though he was accepted into an out-of-state college for engineering, McLaughlin knew from the start that he wanted to pursue music education. After graduating college, he began teaching music in Presque Isle schools before eventually taking his current spot in Caribou in 1986. 

“I wanted to go and try to see if I could build my own program,” McLaughlin said. “To be honest, this one wasn’t very good at the time.”

McLaughlin feels like he has more than accomplished this. In his time as music director at Caribou schools, he said his bands have won seven state championships (including four chorus championships in a row from 1996-1999). In 2001, he was a top finalist for the Maine Teacher of the Year award. 

While he said not everybody who went through the program ended up as a musician, a lot of them ended up being hugely successful. He is especially proud he was able to teach NASA astronaut Jessica Meir. 

McLaughlin said he would likely retire within a year or two. But as for giving up coaching basketball, he said he would stop doing it “when I die.” 

While they are different domains, he said he expects a lot out of his players and musicians alike. And through an eventual mutual understanding, they earn a respect from each other that creates optimal results. 

“Education is a lot about personalities and people. It’s bonding with people,” McLaughlin said. “It’s learning how to communicate with people.”