Carole Roper Park Vaughan grew up as a daddy’s girl.

A childhood tomboy in the 1940s and 1950s, Carole considered her father her hero. Rudolph J. “Rudy” Roper was a man of few words, Carole says of her father, who served as mayor of Sugar Creek from 1941 to 1981.

“He was very big and imposing and a handsome man with a marvelous smile. He loved people – and they knew that,” she says. “He essentially led with his heart.”

Like father, like daughter.

Carole Roper Park Vaughan grew up as a daddy’s girl.

A childhood tomboy in the 1940s and 1950s, Carole considered her father her hero. Rudolph J. “Rudy” Roper was a man of few words, Carole says of her father, who served as mayor of Sugar Creek from 1941 to 1981.

“He was very big and imposing and a handsome man with a marvelous smile. He loved people – and they knew that,” she says. “He essentially led with his heart.”

Like father, like daughter.

He taught Carole the lessons of listening and how to compromise. She was the second oldest child among four children, calling her older sister, Janice, “the pretty one who spent more time at home.” Carole says she loved serving as her father’s shadow, tagging along with him to work. She remembers her father as a man who loved seeing others’ achievements and felt proud as the city grew better.

“He let me be me – and he was 100 percent for me, and I knew it.”

She adored her childhood and considering her attendance at weddings as among her favorite pastimes.

The Slovakian and Croatian weddings in Sugar Creek were family affairs filled with music and food, “and you learned very early on how to polka – and it was really fun,” Carole remembers. “It was a small community, so everyone knew everyone, essentially.”

But the influence of Carole’s mother, Rose, wasn’t excluded. Rose was a progressive woman, Carole says, who often told her daughters to pursue their careers before they married.

“When I was confused or didn’t know what I wanted to do or what kind of career I wanted, she’d say, ‘Just get a job, and one thing leads to another.’ And truly, that is exactly what has happened.”

Carole saw the world as her classroom where she constantly educated her students – and she sought the teachings of those around her, whether it was in the Missouri House of Representatives, a mental health facility or through one of her girlfriends. Though her elected public service ended more than 15 years ago, Carole still considers it among the best careers available and says she always put others before herself.

Carole, the daughter of two parents who were first generation Americans, was the first child in her family to attend college. Following her 1957 graduation from Van Horn High School, Carole enrolled at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. Charged with choosing her own school to attend, Carole says she opened a map and pointed to the farthest south point and chose her college based on the warm weather.

“I didn’t know anything about the academics, and I really didn’t care,” she says, laughing. “I just wanted to go to school where it was warm – and I did.”

Though she ultimately completed her college work at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Carole says attending the University of Miami served as an eye-opening experience with its diverse population, including many women like her attending college. She remembers the racial tension more than efforts in the feminism movement because Carole used to drive through Little Rock, Ark.

“I had come from a small, protective community to an international city,” says Carole, who continues friendships today with women she met through her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. “People and students came from all over the world to that school, so I had lots of exposure to a lot of different cultures and people.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at UMKC in the early 1960s, Carole was separated from her first husband and had her first and only child, Jennifer, a Lee’s Summit resident who today works as consulting manager in health care information systems. The little girl served as Carole’s stimulus for entering a career in education, Carole says.

“I was always, always interested in learning. I had done well in school, and I liked school,” she says. “I thought it would be a perfect mix for rearing a child as a single mother. It was a great choice.”

She taught in the Kansas City School District, shying away from teaching in affluent areas and instead opting for low-income areas of the city. Carole mostly taught sixth grade, but her career from 1964 to 1976 also included teaching stints for second, third and fourth grades. She developed customized teaching practices so they met the students’ needs.

“That was very, very gratifying to me,” Carole says. “I realized I really liked watching kids accomplish something in their life and reach their potential. You could see it so much in those children. It was a great experience.

“Every day was a challenge because these kids’ lives, so many of them, were challenging. It was challenging for them, so it was challenging for me.”  

As an issue-oriented person, Carole kept a great interest in the United States, its government system and her local community. Even with her father’s four-decade career in Sugar Creek politics, the same wasn’t necessarily on Carole’s to-do list.

She was ready to continue her role as a teacher.

Then came the death of Missouri House of Representatives 51st District legislator Al Waits.
“This is something you should do,” Carole remembers her sister telling her regarding running for the 51st District vacancy. “I think you need to do this.”
Carole says she found herself without words, only thinking, “Is this something I can do? Can the people benefit from my work?”

Her epiphany took place as she realized serving in the Missouri House of Representatives was just teaching a classroom on a larger level.

She would go on to serve the Missouri House from 1976 to 1994.

With Carole as a single mother, Carole’s daughter, a student at St. Mary’s High School, lived with her aunt on Monday through Thursday during the early legislative sessions in Carole’s Jefferson City career.
“She is a determined woman who is full of energy and gave everything she had. She put all of her energy into her passion, which was me and her and the legislature,” says Jennifer Distefano, Carole’s daughter. “She really focused on her community and was very passionate about it, including raising me and making sure I had nothing but the best and that I was surrounded by family.”

An elected official learns what it means to appropriate money when others’ lives depend upon it

Carole didn’t have an agenda as a representative in Jefferson City. She says she thought she could serve the 51st District well as an advocate for educational issues with her previous career experience. Instead, Carole served on the Social Services and Public Health and Safety committees, but not the Education Committee.

She acquainted herself with the process in Jefferson City, attending her committee assignments and reading legislation, aiming to absorb all the information she could handle.

“I had gotten a good feel of my district because in the campaign process I had gone door to door to every door in my district, and it took me several months to walk it,” Carole says. “I had gotten to know what the interests were in the district, so I paid attention to bills that I thought would affect them. It was a learning process, really, for me the first few years.”

A recession took place in the 1980s. At the time, one large House Appropriations Committee existed, and Carole often attended the committee’s hearings, listening to discussions on how Missouri taxpayers’ dollars would be spent.

The Missouri House had elected its new Speaker of the House, state Rep. Bob Griffin, who served in the role from 1981 to 1995.

Carole says she suggested to Griffin the creation of subcommittees for specific departments since a recession was taking place and budgetary cuts seemed inevitable. Each appropriations subcommittee would present its budget to a master committee, known as the Budget Committee.

Griffin called on Carole to serve as chairwoman of the Mental Health Appropriations Committee, but she remembers needing time to think about it. At the time, she didn’t have any family members or friends who suffered from mental health issues, “but I had a sensitivity toward them, and I knew one thing: I wanted to do a good job,” Carole says.

She sought the advice and guidance of Gladys Marriott, the Democratic representative from Kansas City “who was a great teacher for me,” Carole says. “She was a very, very smart and disciplined woman who knew government and how it worked and what was possible.” 

Carole decided to try the experience, but “it was very scary,” she says. To her knowledge, Carole is among the first – if not the first – women to serve as chairwoman of an appropriations committee in the Missouri House of Representatives in her role as the first chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee for Mental Health.

“It’s a hugely responsible position,” says Carole, who eventually got a certified public accountant as a researching assistant for her role, “controlling dollars for people whose very lives depend on those dollars for their existence, for their ability to breathe in and out. It was terribly challenging.” 

She charged the aide with developing a tour of visiting different state of Missouri purchase-of-service vendors, such as those that ran boarding homes, alcohol and drug rehabilitation clinics, homes for the mentally disabled and other treatments. Those who served on the mental health appropriations committee with Carole came from different socioeconomic backgrounds and from different sections of Missouri – but they were charged with the same goal.

“What an eye opener,” Carole says. “We saw just about everything, and some of them were quite good. Others were not and were very dismal and very heartbreaking. I think, by doing that, it set the framework for our committee in seeing if we could correct and transform the system and improve services for these people. Everybody saw firsthand, at the same time, the same things.

“It was a great way to start the committee, and I could see that the wheels were turning in their heads. We were beginning to learn.”

Clients also told Carole and her fellow committee members about their treatment needs and what they needed to lead productive lives. “The needs were great, the waiting lists were long, and we’re making cuts,” Carole says. “The upshot of all of this is that in the final analysis, we made the cuts. We increased the services. We certified all of our hospitals. We brought a lot of visibility to a situation that most people aren’t aware of. We learned a lot, and we got a lot out of it.”
At this time, in the early 1980s, government really functioned, Carole says.

“The Democrats and the Republicans worked together,” says Carole, herself a Democrat. “They worked hard. They didn’t look for the credit – they produced. We did a great job, and I’m so proud of each and every person. I just can’t say enough good things about what they did.”

Jean Barrett first got to know Carole through the Missouri Legislature, though today the two women are neighbors in Independence. Barrett, who testified before Carole’s committee while she served in the Missouri House, is the mother of Kevin Castle, a 57-year-old mentally disabled man who lives at the Higginsville (Mo.) Habilitation Center. Castle visits his mother every other weekend and on holidays, and Carole also often sees Castle on his visits.

“She’s honest, whether it’s good or bad – that’s always been her main thing,” Barrett says of Carole. “She’s honest as the day is long. When she goes into anything, it’s not halfway. She really puts her heart and soul into it.

“It’s kind of like a dog and a bone – she won’t let go of it until she gets it. She is a very unusual lady.”

Carole receives recognition for her work in the mental health industry, crediting her parents for successes

Among Carole’s closest friends is Carol Sue Bass, a Lee Summit resident and an Independence native who is active in many Eastern Jackson County nonprofit organizations and philanthropic efforts. Both at age 70, Carole’s and Carol’s lives have paralleled in many ways, including their respective battles with cancer, raising their children as single mothers, remarrying later in life and serving as female pioneers in their respective fields.
The two met more than 50 years ago through high school cheerleading and at the Sugar Creek swimming pool, though their friendship grew closer as the years went on. Carole “is the best – she knows what to do and how to get it done, whether it’s a job or something else,” Bass says. 

“I can’t hardly remember not being friends with her,” Bass says. “She’s always there to do something extra, and she doesn’t have to have credit for it. She’s an intelligent person who reads a lot and knows things and is a good person to go to if you want to know something just about anything.

“She’s a fighter, I’ll tell you what. You have to learn to be strong.”

Though she never sought credit, Carole has received plenty of it throughout the years. In May 2004, Comprehensive Mental Health Services dedicated an 8,500-square-foot facility at 17886 E. 23rd St. in Independence as the Carole Roper Park Vaughan Building. In April, Carole received the Missouri Department of Mental Health’s Lasting Legacy Award for her efforts in identifying crucial needs of the mental health system and for championing those needs through the Missouri Legislature.

“It was just a great reunion,” Carole says of the awards banquet at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Jefferson City.
“There really aren’t any more caring people than those who work in the delivery of health care, especially mental health and the disabled. I’m proud of them, and they give so much of their lives. I know they feel enriched by it because I do. I feel that I’ve really benefited as a human being, and there’s really no greater job than public service – if that’s your thing.”

She wanted to continue making it “her thing.” Carole ran for U.S. Congress following her 18-year career in the Missouri House. She lost against Karen McCarthy, a Democrat who served as the U.S. representative for Missouri’s 5th Congressional district from 1995 to 2005.

“I was disappointed,” Carole says of losing, “but I thought it was time to move on. I guess I thought I could make a difference.”

Instead, she worked for the Independence School District, writing a newsletter to parents and guardians regarding nutrition and development disabilities. She also worked in a truancy program, retiring in 2001.

She married Independence businessman Luva “Lu” Vaughan in 2000, who owned movie theaters across the greater Kansas City area, in Colorado and in Ohio. Carole and Lu now divide their time between the Winterset Estate on East 39th Street in Independence and their home in California. 

“I’ve always loved being close to my family and friends. I love the area, and it’s just been a very fulfilling place to be,” Carole says on why she remained in the Eastern Jackson County area throughout her lifetime.

“I’ve always been very comfortable here. I have had some wonderful experiences in my life traveling, but in the final analysis, there’s no place like home.”
Carole has never let her gender stop her in life.
“Let’s put it this way,” she says, preceding an anecdote. Carole’s maternal grandmother owned a grocery store in Kansas City, Kan., working as the butcher. Her grandfather worked the cash register.
Carole’s mother, the couple’s only child, worked alongside her parents at the grocery store.

“Whatever it took, they just did it,” Carole says. “I actually remember seeing my grandfather sew on the sewing machine once because my grandmother didn’t have time to repair something, so they just worked.”

Carole says her father never questioned what his daughter wanted in life or in her career. She credits her parents for her successes in life.

“I just figured I could do whatever I wanted to do,” Carole says. “Now, having said that, I realized later that that’s not the case for all women, and it certainly wasn’t the case in some occupations.

“I was blessed with fabulous parents. They let me experiment. They let me learn. They set out a few rules, and they had expectations for us. For the most part, I did pretty well.”