John B. Davis, who led Macalester, school districts, diesby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — John B. Davis, an educator known for his ability to save struggling schools, died Tuesday from a rare brain disease. He was 89.
Davis served as superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, president of Macalester College, and chairman of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve.
Davis was born in Massachusetts, and he never lost the accent. He came to Minneapolis in 1967 to take the job as superintendent of the city's public schools. Decades later he told Minnesota Public Radio about that moment.
"I was excited to be nominated and I thought it was good to spread my wings and my family basically agreed that this would be a very exciting place," Davis said.
Davis led the schools through a difficult period. Through a series of landmark rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court was forcing school districts around the country to desegregate. Former Minneapolis public schools Superintendent Carol Johnson was a young teacher in Minneapolis at the time, and she remembers Davis helped the city adjust to integration.
"One of the reasons people admired him so much, is instead of polarizing the issues, he really stood tall and advocated doing what was right for children," Johnson said.
Davis's work in Minneapolis impressed the trustees of Macalester College. And in 1975, they hired him as the school's president. Retired professor Jack Rossmann recalls Macalester was in a financial crisis — cutting salaries and laying people off.
"There were ... significant cutbacks in a whole variety of ways," Rossmann said. "That was the situation that John Davis inherited."
The college had lost its chief benefactor. DeWitt Wallace, founder of Reader's Digest, had become disillusioned with Macalester and cut off his support. Paul Aslanian was a vice president at the time, and he said Davis quickly fixed Macalester's finances.
"He was a very persuasive, earnest, honest guy, and once Mr. Wallace got to know John and knew what John stood for and what he was trying to accomplish, I think Mr. Wallace became the comfortable donor that we wanted him to be," Aslanian said.
Davis was developing a reputation as someone who could turn around the most troubled of institutions. So in 1984, when the founder of the Children's Theater Company was charged with sexually abusing three students, the theater asked Davis to take over. At the time, Davis vowed the theater would survive with the help of the community.
"Parents, members of the board of directors and friends of the theater have all rallied and have assured that when the situation has cleared, that great theater and school shall be preserved. And I shall be one of the instruments working to that end," Davis told MPR at the time.
Davis went on to help Minnesota State University-Mankato improve relations between faculty and the administration. He helped the Minneapolis College of Art and Design through a difficult stretch and came to the rescue of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, too. In 1993, when the Minneapolis School Board suspended its superintendent, they called Davis back to the job until a permanent replacement could be found. He even served as chairman of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve during the 1980s.
Davis told Minnesota Public Radio the longest he'd ever wanted to stay in a job was 10 years.
"It was always better for me to build a terminal device in, lest I become stale and a creature of habit," Davis said. "More than that, institutions need to be liberated from she or he who is at the apex and start afresh."
Davis had a close friendship with former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, who said Davis was one of the greatest men he's ever known.
"He was one of the few people who could do great things in public and in private," Latimer said. "He was without meanness. He was without smallness. He was absolutely a superlative human being like few if any others I've ever known."
Latimer added that combination of kindness and acumen is what allowed Davis to succeed in so many areas.