My friend Virgil Davis passed away on April 21, 2020, at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the time, I posted a brief tribute to him on Facebook describing Virgil as a gentleman, scholar, teacher, community organizer, and social justice advocate. His son Jon echoed my sentiment in his dad’s obituary, stating that Virgil “believed that with a little work the world could become a better place” and that “helping people and communities that need assistance was a worthwhile way to lead a life.” To those ends, Virgil led a life of unqualified success.
Born on May 11, 1938, to the late Henry F. Davis and Roxie Davis (née Conway), young Virgil lived on a farm in Middle Tennessee until his father received ordination in the Methodist Church. Virgil attended high school in Collingwood, Tennessee, a stone’s throw from the Natchez Trace Parkway. In school, he met his wife Judy. After serving four years in the United States Air Force, Virgil returned home, and the couple were married.
Virgil matriculated at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. A job offer in the early 1960s would send him to Lauderdale County, Tennessee, located on the western edge of the state and bordering the Mississippi River. There he worked as a community developer, and Judy worked as a teacher. The activist streak emerged in both as they attempted to integrate the public schools there, drawing first the attention, then the ire of the Ku Klux Klan. Integration took place in planned phases, beginning with teachers, Judy among them, and four in all: two African American and two white. A Black and a white teacher taught a half day at the white school and a half day at the Black school. The thinking was that the citizenry might more easily accept integrating teachers first. Students would follow. The Klan was having none of it, however. Each day they drove behind Judy on her way to and from work. Virgil joked to her that “at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that if you have a flat tire, they’ll stop and change it for you. Not even the Klan can pass up a white woman in distress.”
Another employment opportunity lured the couple to Chattanooga where Virgil helped plan the city’s development while teaching political science at UTC. Virgil ultimately reported to Ralph Kelly, Chattanooga’s mayor from 1963 – 1969. Kelly was a cutting-edge visionary and a progressive calling for racial equality in an era of defacto segregation and racial turmoil. Virgil told me a story demonstrating Kelly’s inspired leadership. He described how on the evening of April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, some 200 African American protesters stormed down Chattanooga’s East Ninth Street (now MLK Boulevard) heading toward Market Street and the city’s downtown shopping area. The police estimated their time of arrival, reporting this information to the mayor, who summarily dismissed the officers while insisting that the only person the demonstrators would see on rounding the corner was Kelly. It happened as planned. After a minute, shouts died, and discussion followed. Kelly assured the group that he too was angry, but pointed out that burning down the city wouldn’t benefit anyone.
The mayor’s voice rose up into the night air:
“Is anyone hungry?” he asked.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“Tell you what let’s do. My friends own the S&W Cafeteria. I’m going to call them and get them to open and we’re going to eat everything on the menu!”
Virgil punctuated the story by saying, “And that’s the night Mayor Kelly treated 200 of his fellow Chattanoogans to dinner.” For Virgil, Kelly’s action was a tour de force of vibrant and compassionate leadership.
Virgil’s next stint brought him to Knoxville and to the newly formed Office of Economic Development where he aided Mayor Randy Tyree in planning and bringing to Knoxville the 1982 World’s Fair. Opening day festivities included a brief address by then U. S. President Ronald Reagan with First Lady Nancy Reagan in attendance. I asked Virgil how Reagan responded to sharing the stage with Democrats (i.e., Tyree and Jake Butcher, a wealthy financier).
“The SOB wouldn’t even shake hands with them,” Virgil recalled.
His love of teaching tugged him to Pellissippi State Community College where he sometimes taught a full slate of American Government classes each semester. Before the 2016 election, I asked him to give a lecture as part of the college’s Common Book activities. He agreed, lecturing on the Electoral College and showing numerically how Trump would easily win Tennessee in the final show-down (information he was sad to report). When a student in the audience posed a question about bipartisanship politics, Virgil quipped:
“Bipartisan politics? What’s that? I believe that died with Bush and the Cheney gang.”
Vintage Virgil: sly, smart, salty – qualities contributing to his role as a brilliantly entertaining raconteur and a lunch companion nonpareil. How many fine hours did some of us get to spend with him in PSCC’s cafeteria, our spirits buoyed by his anecdotes, our moods leavened by his gentle demeanor. His friend Sydney Gingrow recalls the first time she met him in the selfsame lunchroom. Sydney was faculty sponsor of the College Democrats and Pride organization at the time:
As one of the loud-mouthed liberals in the dining room, I began to notice a character sitting afar, who was clearly keeping his eyes and ears on me. Being appropriately paranoid, I eyed him back for a few weeks. One day, he sat down beside me and said, ‘I think we have a lot in common.’ And thus began my forever affair with the incomparable Virgil Davis.
To Virgil, politics was about values. The extent to which you appreciated his deadpan political humor let you know with certainty when you were on the right side. After falling ill, he encouraged his hospital staff to try to keep him alive until November so he could vote against Donald Trump. I have that on the authority of Virgil’s beloved wife Judy, with whom I recently spoke in preparing this tribute.
For the better part of an hour, Judy spoke to me of their times together and of shared passions, such as basket making. Few knew that Virgil was well-regarded for his Shaker-style black ash basketry and that he and Judy were members of the Foothills Craft Guild. At the conclusion of our conversation, she substantiated what I knew to be true:
“He was a nice man who always had your back.”
What I also know is that Pellissippi State’s cafeteria will be a lonelier place without him. He would expect us to soldier on, but as I sit here staring out the window on this gray and rainy Tuesday morning, I can’t but feel that the universe is a little colder, a little emptier than before. However, sadness offers no excuse for withholding a final farewell blessing:
Rest in peace, my friend.
Please take some time and visit Virgil Davis’ obituary page where the family has provided a lovely tribute video and photographs.
**Featured image source: Pellissippi State Community College