Vern Davis' life was shaped by the education he received, and he spent his adult life trying to pass on that gift to others.
He was born in Savannah, Ga., but his father died when he was 4 and his mother was unable to raise him. An oft-told story describes how he took the train north to live with his grandmother, Martha Samuels, and his aunt, Belle Davis, in Hartford. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1939; he was 6 years old and he made the trip alone.
Living with his grandmother changed his life. Although his grandmother, called Mother Samuels by church members, could not read or write, she understood her Bible and he grew up attending church twice a week. Just as significantly, she impressed upon him the importance of getting a proper education.
His grandmother and his aunt lived in the Bellevue Square housing project, which bore little resemblance to the hardscrabble, drug-ridden neighborhood it later became.
"It was a community," one that took pride in its young people, said Davis' wife, Alice.
Vern Davis attended Arsenal Elementary School, where he met Alice Alexander. He was a member of the only black Boy Scout troop in Hartford, sponsored by the police department. He was asked by the two police officers in charge of the team to be their assistant. Starting at age 9, he worked in the broadleaf tobacco fields. A cousin rented a house on East Windsor Hill, where the family lived during the tobacco harvest — a place he used to refer to jokingly as his summer house. One of his early jobs was spearing the individual leaves so they could be hung up and dried.
By the time he got to Weaver High School in Hartford, he was a multitalented athlete: quarterback of an undefeated football team, track runner, , ice skater, javelin thrower and tennis player. He was president of the boys' letter club and a class marshal. He missed only one day of school — to attend a funeral.
When he graduated, he received an academic Fox scholarship to Springfield College. Lewis Fox (a relative of the donor) took an interest in the scholarship recipients and drove Davis to Springfield College, where he was elected president of the freshman class and played quarterback on the school's football team. He graduated in 1957 with honors and was named in Who's Who of American College Students.
He and Alice were close to getting married when Davis received a scholarship to Northwestern University. That would have meant moving to Chicago — and a long separation. He decided instead to return to Hartford and become a teacher. They were married in 1957 and he never looked back. They had two children and raised three grandchildren.
He taught school and spent evenings and summers working for the city's parks and recreation programs. He became a Boy Scout leader and earned a master's degree at the University of Hartford.
Davis enjoyed his students and treated them with respect. He would look a student in the eye and say, "Let me ask you a question. Let me ask you another question.' Soon you had your own answer," said his wife.
By the time he was 30, he was a vice principal, and when he was promoted to principal of Hartford's J.C. Clark Elementary School in 1971, he was only the second or third black person to achieve that position.
He stayed at Clark until he retired in 1992. His teachers appreciated his low-key manner and his management style.
"Things other principals would demand, he would ask," recalled Betsy White, who went to Clark as a speech therapist when Davis was assigned there. "He treated everyone with respect. He wasn't there to be a policeman. Others are into power, and [he] was not."
Many of the students came from broken homes and had little money, and Davis could relate to them.
"Vern grew up in that kind of neighborhood, raised by his grandmother," White said. "He was a wonderful role model: 'Education can do it for you.'"
Davis was a mentor to many students, but also to a first cousin, Rodney Johnson.
"Vernal was the only male figure I had to look to," Johnson recalled. "I had a rebellious nature" — which landed him in reform school and later in prison. Davis never gave up on him. He counseled his young cousin, and after Johnson was released from prison, Davis helped him get a job as a school custodian.
"I look at it as he saved my life," said Johnson, who, at Davis' encouragement, attended Hartford Seminary and earned a bachelor's degree in theology and was ordained. "Some people gave up on me. He never did."
Davis never lost his love of sports, and played golf frequently around Hartford or on trips to Florida and North Carolina. After joining the Masonic order as a young man, he rose to become the state grand master.
There were few places in Hartford Davis could go without running into a former student, many of whom kept in touch. Though he was reserved, he enjoyed being with people, and filled his retirement years with community activities.
Davis died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest.
"I don't want to paint him as a perfectionist," said his wife. "He was just a good Christian man who loved God, his wife and family and mankind, and he helped those that crossed his path."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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