John H. Davis was born in the small community of Ninety-Six, South Carolina. At an early age, he became a sports enthusiast organizing games and leagues for the neighborhood children. His favorite sport was baseball, and some years later he earned a scholarship to Furman University in South Carolina. There he played various positions, but John was basically a catcher, a position he played in 1951 when he was elected to receive the most valuable player award. His greatest moment in baseball came in 1951 at Clemson University’s Tigertown Stadium, which was packed. With bases loaded each time he appeared at the plate, in this order he tripled, doubled, homered, and singled, driving in 12 runs and establishing a record that still stands today. His .337 batting average was the leading batting average.
On August 11, 1951, between his junior and senior year at Furman, John married his college sweetheart, Joyce Coggins. They formed a team, built upon love, mutual respect, and support, that has endured for 62 years. To know John is to know his “Joy,” and knowing them both is a wonderful experience.
John was also very involved with the military. After graduation from high school, John joined the Navy and spent two years serving aboard the USS Missouri and on the USS Tarawa, an aircraft carrier. On the latter, he was at sea for 17 months stopping in ports including Guam, Saipan, Taiwan, Okinawa, China, and Japan. This was all prior to his attendance at Furman University, where he was on scholarship and using his GI bill to help obtain his education.
His service to this country continued. Within four days after graduation in 1952 with a B.S. degree from Furman and a commission in the Army through the ROTC, Davis found himself in the Korean War. While providing this artillery support during conflict at Heartbreak Ridge, he also served as an officer, commanding a platoon of five tanks in support of the E Company, a part of the 40th Division. He became well acquainted with the Company Commander, 1st Lt. James McChesney, who later became head of the Department of Parks and Recreation at Eastern Kentucky University. He tried to convince Davis to pursue a career in parks and recreation when his military career ended. He was unsuccessful, as Davis was determined to be a college coach. After the peace agreement was signed, Davis served the remainder of his military career in charge of sports and recreation activities for the E. Company.
After discharge, Davis was unable to find a job in the coaching field. He learned that the town of Darlington, SC, was seeking a Director of Recreation. Needing a job to fulfill his responsibilities for his growing family, he applied and was successful in obtaining the position.
Thus, John Davis began his professional parks and recreation career in a small, rural community not far from his home town of Ninety-Six. After serving for two years, he interrupted his career to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University. While at Columbia, he taught classes in recreation and physical education at City College of New York. He also was coach of the first freshmen class baseball team and was successful enough that he was offered a position as varsity coach and professor of recreation and physical education upon receiving his master’s degree. Fate intervened, however, as John had interviewed with Willard “Woody” Sutherland of the National Recreation Association (one of the founding organizations of the National Recreation and Park Association) as part of his work at Columbia. Sutherland had told Davis that he would be employed in the field of parks and recreation following completion of his requirements for a master’s degree. Davis turned down the offer from CCNY, and two weeks later was selected as the first director of parks and recreation for the City of Dalton, GA. As we like to say, that was CCNY’s loss and park and recreation’s gain.
Davis reentered, if you will, the field of park and recreation at Dalton in 1957. It was during his six-plus years there that he established Dalton as the premier department in the state. Locally, the residents knew that John Davis was a “winner” as he was embraced by all facets of the community as a person with superb leadership skills. He became friends with CEOs of the numerous textile companies and others who contributed their time and dollars to various park and recreation projects. When the State of Georgia lured Davis away in 1963 to become the executive director of the newly established Georgia Recreation Commission, the citizens of Dalton gave John the keys to a new Plymouth Station Wagon! A few years later, they honored John by naming the enlarged recreation center in his honor.
Using his leadership and development skills that served the citizens of Dalton so well, he became very adept at navigating the GRC through the political arena of the state legislature as well. Operating as an independent state agency for 10 years, Davis and his staff served not only the state, but provided their professional skills to municipalities and county governments as well. This resulted in the creation of 50 + new departments of parks and recreations. Exceeding all expectations, this success provided political leaders at the state, municipal and county levels, many positive successes to talk about.
In 1972, the duties and responsibilities of the GRC were incorporated into the newly created Department of Natural Resources. Davis became Chief of Recreation and Park Planning, where he continued to administer the work of the old GRC, with added responsibilities for the Georgia Heritage Trust Program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Advisory Services to Local Governments, State Recreation Planning, and development and operation of the Georgia Special Olympics. Recreation programs for the state penal institutions were also initiated for the first time.
During his tenure at Dalton and at the state, Davis functioned with a high level of productivity. As the director or agency head, he will tell you the successes that he or the agency enjoyed was due to staff effort and the willingness of political leaders and citizen volunteers who were willing and eager to “go the extra mile” and take the personal, and sometimes political risk to do what is right for the constituency they served. As for staff development, one only has to look at the future successes of those who served with him: James (Jim) Colley, Director of Parks, Recreation and Libraries, Phoenix, AZ, and president of the NRPA Board of Trustees; Thad Studstill, NRPA Regional Director, assistant director of NRPA, and executive director of the Georgia Parks and Recreation Society; Tom Martin, NRPA Regional Director, executive director of the Georgia Recreation and Park Society; and Lonice Barrett, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Other staff also had successful careers at the municipal and county level, and are too numerous to list here. Professionals, such as the writer of this document, have seen their careers advanced as a result of a telephone call or letter of support from Davis.
In 1963, John Davis and Jess Matthews, a native of Alabama and the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Officer at Shaw Air Force Base, were named co-chairs for the 10-state Southern Recreation Conference to be held in Atlanta. Never ones to back away from difficult issues, the co-chairs decided the time had come to integrate the conference. No blacks had ever attended the Southern Conference. Temple Jarrell, then-NRA Southern Regional Director, was apprehensive, fearing repercussions that could cost him his job. Davis said, “Temp, this is a done deal. If anyone at NRA headquarters has a problem with this move, tell them to call me.” With active encouragement of the co-chairs, over 50 black recreation professionals attended the conference.
In his capacity as executive director of the Georgia Recreation Commission, Davis was visiting with the city manager of a Georgia city. The manager told him that there would be no black kids swimming with white kids in his city. His word was kept, as he later filled the only pool in the city with dirt. Later, when Davis was in charge of the state Land and Water Conservation Fund, this same manager contacted John and asked for $100,000 to build a new swimming pool in his city. Davis reminded him of his former action and told him there would be no funds coming to his city for a new pool. After thinking about this decision, Davis concluded that all he was doing was hurting all of the children (and adults) in the city just to penalize the manager for his earlier actions. He changed his decision, and the city received the funds for its new pool.
John Davis received many professional honors and served professional organizations in many capacities during his career. He served as president of the Georgia Recreation and Park Association and received the organization’s highest leadership and professional award. Davis is so revered in Georgia that when he was invited to give the keynote address at their conference in 2011, the brochure promoting the conference declared Davis as the “Patriarch of Georgia Recreation!” When the GRPA established its Hall of Fame, Davis was the first person approved for the honor. He was honored by the NRPA’s Southern Regional Council with its Distinguished Service Award. He served as president of the American Park and Recreation Society, a professional branch of NRPA, and is a recipient of the Distinguished Fellow Award. In 1975, he served as president of the National Recreation and Park Association.
Davis left Georgia in 1974 to fill a new position of associate director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, a job that was to lead to executive director of the organization when the current director retired later that year. He held the directorship for a short period of time, as his beloved national association asked him to become the executive director. He accepted that invitation and began his service with NRPA in 1976, following the annual spring meeting of the NRPA Board of Trustees. His exceptional service with NRPA lasted 10 years, until he resigned in 1986. During his tenure with NRPA, Davis had the privilege of selling the old headquarters of the National Recreation Association at 8 West Eighth Street in New York, the same building where in 1957 he had visited Woody Sutherland and Joe Prendergast.
When Davis began his career with NRPA, there were approximately 11,000 members. When he left, the membership topped 19,000. Public visibility and support for parks and recreation were a major focus for Davis. He along with Board Chair Hal Haskell pursued an agreement with Australia to utilize their very successful Life. Be In It. program. Additionally, the jointly sponsored Track and Field Program with the Hershey Company, in cooperation with local parks and recreation programs, and state parks and recreation associations, became very popular. Hershey brought over 500 youth from across the country to their headquarters for the finals each year in Hershey, PA. The association continued to expand its efforts on the legislative front under the leadership of Davis and Legislative and Public Policy Director, Barry Tindall.
After leaving NRPA in 1985, Davis explored new facets of the profession by working in the recreation equipment industry where he enjoyed much success for several years. He and Joyce built their retirement home in Culpeper, Virginia, where they continue to reside. They remain active in their church and enjoy being close to their three children and several grandchildren. John Davis, as always, continues to enjoy daily telephone conversations with his many friends and reminisce about the joys of his long and outstanding career in what he calls “the greatest profession on earth!”