Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Walter Davis' lasting contributions to N.C.

Walter Royal Davis, a multi-millionaire who worked his way up from a Pasquotank County farm to become an oil baron in Texas and later a implacable -- some say bull-headed -- force in North Carolina politics and higher education, died Monday in Chapel Hill. The News & Observer has a comprehensive story today about his figurative and literal contributions to the state. Click here:
The thing that knocked me out about Davis, a larger-than-life fellow (300 pounds in his prime) was his often-gruff style and his soft heart. He is said to have sent something like 1,300 students to college -- and once wrote a $100,000 check for East Carolina students after Hurricane Floyd disrupted life for just about everyone in Greenville.
But Davis didn't make life easy for everyone. He had a falling out with one of his partners, the legendary oilman Armand Hammer, and also differed publicly with UNC Presidents C.D. Spangler and Molly Broad. William A. Link, the scholarly author of biographies and former UNC President Bill Friday and lately former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, wrote about Davis' role in the 1984 upheaval when the UNC Board of Governors was choosing a new board chairman just before Friday retired. In his book "William Friday: Power, Purpose, & American Higher Education," Link wrote that some board dissidents had chafed at Friday's style in running the system; they wanted to be stronger players in the course of the university and not rubber stamps, and Davis broke his pledge of support for former Winston-Salem Mayor Wayne Corpening, the choice of the previously ruling coalition on the board, to support Phil Carson. Following that, Link reported, Davis was one of three board members who met secretly at the old Governor's Inn in the Research Triangle Park before Board of Governors meetings to decide what the board would do next. (Carson has denied this account, but Link stands by his reporting.)
And Davis's lasting contribution might be his mentoree, longtime state Senate president pro tem Marc Basnight, who Davis groomed for a role in statewide politics and who is often regarded as the strongest public official in the state.

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David McKnight said...

In the early 1980s, when the Walter Royal Davis Library was being constructed at UNC-Chapel Hill, I was living on Royal Street ("Rue Royale") in the French Quarter of New Orleans having the time of my life playing the violin, learning the dialects of Cajun French and generally acting somewhat "above my raisin'" as an out-and-about fiddler just when fiddle-playing was "hot" and in great demand during the "Urban Cowboy" craze and all the great country rock music associated with the movie by that name.

Not only were the "Urban Cowboy" songs fun to play, they also were melodically and harmonically appealing, and so we never tired of playing "Looking For Love" and "The Cotton Eyed Joe" in our house band shows one block over from Royal Street on famed "Rue Bourbon"--Bourbon Street.

Add to that the march of Gastonia's James Worthy and the 1981-82 North Carolina Tar Heels, once led in the '70s by a Mecklenburg sharpshooter named Walter Davis, to the NCAA Final Four title in New Orleans in the spring of '82, and it was quite an exciting time in the Crescent City for anyone from the Old North State.

So when I found out about the Walter Royal Library at UNC-Chapel Hill upon my return to "The Southern Part of Heaven," I naturally became very interested in the life and career of the man for whom the elegant and inviting Davis Library was named.

All I read was what was in the newspapers, to paraphrase Will Rogers, because I never got to meet Walter Davis as many other N.C. journalists and political candidates did. But I had previously gotten to know his native northeastern region of the state in the area known as "The Albemarle," including Davis's own Pasquotank County and Jim ("Catfish") Hunter's native Perquimans County right next door to Pasquotank in the upper right corner of the Old North State.

With historic Edenton in Chowan County once having served as a colonial capital of North Carolina, I would just say to my fellow Piedmont neighbors that although you may not read or hear so much about where Walter Davis came from around Elizabeth City and surrounding areas of Northeastern N.C. just south of Norfolk, and although the population of "The Albemarle" is not very large compared to major urban areas across the state, the folks up that way seem to think of themselves as sort of "Carolina Bostonians," as I view it. Therefore, if they think something "isn't getting done" in state government in Raleigh or in the UNC System in Chapel Hill, then you can just about figure that they will react like those real Bostonians up in New England and be a tad bolder than some others might prefer in trying to set things straight (as they view it of course).

So in Walter Davis, North Carolina had a native of "The Albemarle" who made it big in the oil business in Texas and learned the gallop-and-tumble ways of the business tycoons of the Great Southwest, but with this important difference: he did not forget either where he came from, amongst the potato farmers of Pasquotank County, or the greater needs of his native state of North Carolina and especially of the flagship campus of the UNC System, which he saw as a vital link for the people of this state to a brighter future in each succeeding generation.

So he may have "pushed a bit" here and there whether others might have sought a more diplomatic manner of settling differences. (And Charlotteans know what great leadership C.D. Spangler brought to the UNC System and to the cause of public education across-the-board, so that need not be an issue among Queen City loyalists.)

But I hope Observer readers and "This Old State" aficionados will read the newspaper article suggested by Jack Betts in the link above. The swashbuckling Walter Davis could really make things happen when the spirit moved him even if it took weeks for the dust to settle, and he loved nothing more than to help working people and their families "catch a break" in the footsteps journey to their true hopes and dreams.

After all, this is the great ideal that today's presidential candidates are talking about, isn't it?

Walter Davis was "all over the map" as far as his favorite causes were concerned, and it is most fitting that UNC-Chapel Hill's main research library is named for him because students, professors and academicians of all stripes need an occasional lift on a fast-charging wagon train every now and then to make it across those horizons of discovery and exploration which lead to great things for the people of this state and country.

Charlotteans can always benefit from looking at North Carolina from the vantage point of other regions of the Old North State, especially out on the coast and up in the mountains. In the rich agricultural fields of Eastern North Carolina, the type of potatoes that folks grow in Walter Davis's native Pasquotank County are the small variety as opposed to the bigger Idahos and what have you.

But Walter Royal Davis, whether wrangling in the oil business in Texas or forging new trails for higher education back home in North Carolina, was anything but "small potatoes."

[This post written in the Davis Library at UNC-Chapel Hill.]

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