My Father’s Last Opportunity
June 1, 2008 - In 1949 my father, Jim Vaus, was well known in Los Angeles for his ties to organized crime. Dad was an electronics expert offering surveillance and protection to L.A. crime boss Mickey Cohen. However, it was while he was doing a job for Mickey’s friend St. Louis Andy that my father’s life took a dramatic turn.
Andy was in the business of betting on big horse races across the country. And, like a good businessman, he had thought of a way to beat the competition. He just needed a little help to pull it off.
The communication system for sending news across the United States in the 1940s was the wire service. Andy was interested in the news of horses that were winning races.
He figured if he could hold up the information coming over the wire service for 90 seconds, that would give him enough time to flash the winners to his cronies placing bets off-track in other parts of the country. Then they could let the information come through and clean up the cash every time.
Dad wasn’t sure he could devise such a system. He moonlighted at it for four months until, finally, he came up with a combination of teletype equipment and other electronic components that he thought might do the trick. He and Andy tried out the system in Arizona; it worked like a charm.
Andy wanted to open up the business like a franchise. He asked my father to meet him in St. Louis on Nov. 10, 1949, in order to set up his system to control the entire western half of the United States in illegal off-track betting. However, Dad never made the meeting.
On Nov. 6, 1949, he and my mother happened to attend a tent meeting at the corner of Washington and Hill Streets in downtown Los Angeles, where Billy Graham was preaching. Dad was curious about the meeting because an acquaintance of his, radio personality Stuart Hamblen, had recently “walked the sawdust trail” in the tent.
Upon entering, Dad observed the crowd. He had a hard time pinning a label on them because they were all so varied. He tried to keep his mental distance and to find something wrong with the program, but when Billy Graham stood up to speak, Dad was riveted. Mr. Graham preached on Jesus’ question: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, KJV).
During the invitation to receive Christ, Mr. Graham said: “There is a man in this audience, tonight, who has heard this message many times before, but he has never given his life to Christ, and this may be his last opportunity.” Dad hesitated. He had believed in God, and in Jesus as God’s Son, for all of his remembered life. Wasn’t that enough? Something in Billy Graham’s words convinced him that it wasn’t. Dad suddenly whispered, “I’ll go,” and he invited my mom to join him.
As Mr. Graham later put it, “One evening when the invitation was given, I noticed a giant of a man, tears rolling down his cheeks, coming up with his wife to receive Christ. I did not know who he was, but I asked Cliff to have the audience sing one more verse of the final song to give them time to reach the front.”
As my mother was recommitting her life to Christ, Dad knelt in the prayer tent and said, “God, if you’ll mean business with me, I’ll mean business with you. If you can take the tangled mess of my life and straighten it out, all I have is yours. I’ll hold back nothing.”
My father was true to the promise he made on that November night in 1949. He quit organized crime and set about repaying everyone he had ever cheated or stolen from. When he was finished with restitution, he and my mom were flat broke, but the Lord provided for all of their needs all of the way.
Dad dedicated the rest of his life to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. In 1958, he started a ministry to delinquent youths on the streets of New York City that would later span the nation. Out of the first nine young men he got to know in Harlem, all committed their lives to Christ.
Eight of them are still alive today and all went on to lead exemplary lives. In fact, the young man who led the largest gang—more than 900 members—became a vice president with Chase Manhattan Bank.
In 1971 the onset of Parkinson’s disease forced my father, and our family, to move away from the harsh New York winters. We resettled in San Diego, where the Christian organization my father founded, Youth Development Inc., eventually became the largest provider of residential care and treatment of juvenile delinquents in San Diego County.
In the early ’80s, Dad’s heart for troubled youth across America led him to establish the first National Youth Crisis Hotline. Using his electronics expertise, he designed a computerized system to handle calls from runaways and other troubled youth, channeling those calls to dedicated Christian volunteer lay counselors in churches across the country.
Over the years the hotline handled hundreds of thousands of calls from distressed and displaced young people—referring them to the help of shelters and, more important, pointing them to the ultimate hope of a relationship with Christ.
In 1995 Youth Development received a piece of property in the mountains of Virginia. My father and brother Roger had a vision for turning that piece of property into a youth camp. Thus, at age 75, my father became a modern-day Abraham, following God’s call to a new place. It was a joy to see him spending the last two years of his life on earth sharing with youth, at a mountain camp in Virginia, the story of how Christ had changed his life.
The words of the Apostle Paul in Acts 20:24 well sum up my father’s philosophy: “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”
But that commitment may never have come to be, were it not for the work of the Lord through Billy Graham on Nov. 6, 1949. Subsequent to Mr. Graham’s meetings in Los Angeles, my father learned that had he traveled to St. Louis on Nov. 10, 1949, as scheduled, he wouldn’t have lived 30 minutes past his arrival, for a rival gang was waiting there to kill him.
That November night in the tent really was my father’s last opportunity to commit his life to Christ. Had he not heeded God’s call, my dad would not likely have lived beyond 1949; I certainly never would have been born; and the countless people won to Christ through my father’s ministry never would have had the same opportunity to respond to the Gospel.
It is vital that we heed the words of Scripture, in 2 Corinthians 6:2: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation”; and in Hebrews 3:7-8: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”