Person of the Week
Jack Davis: A Lifetime of Achievement
Jack Davis is one of only two recipients of this year’s Don Rankin Community Service Award, an honor bestowed on individuals who have devoted extraordinary efforts for the betterment of Madison. He and his wife Helen have made a positive impact in town in the areas of education, housing, religion, recreation, and the arts. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Davis )
On July 18, Jack Davis celebrates his birthday. Nothing unusual about that, except two days later, he’ll legitimately celebrate it again.
That’s because Jack was born on July 18, 1923, but his birth certificate says he was born on July 20.
So, on the 20th and at the age of 97, Jack will celebrate his 194th birthday.
“I was really born on the 18th, but [the doctor] put it down on the 20th. So, there’s a two-day difference,” Jack explains about his beginnings in Brooklyn, New York.
It’s extraordinary, but then again, so is Jack’s life. In fact, his two birthdays may have been a foreshadowing that his many accomplishments could have spanned two lifetimes.
Seldom does one’s work and involvement impact almost every aspect of life in town. But Jack’s work and service have benefited Madison so much that the Board of Selectmen voted on June 8 to name him as one of only two recipients of this year’s Don Rankin Community Service Award, alongside Gus Horvath. The honor is bestowed on individuals who have devoted extraordinary efforts for the betterment of the town.
Take for instance, education.
Upon his departure from the United States Military Office of Naval Research in 1955, Jack, with his wife Helen and their infant son Stephen, moved to Madison where he purchased Grove School from owner and administrator Jess Perlman.
Grove School was and continues to be a residential therapeutic school for students with social, emotional, and learning challenges. It prepares adolescents and young adults to pursue college successfully and attain personal growth thereafter.
“Life at Grove was a 24/7 commitment. With a beginning population of only 16 students, we had a tight budget,” Jack writes in a column on Owl Life Members, a newsletter by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
“All expenditures had to be carefully monitored, and most repairs, including carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and even car maintenance for our one station wagon, required us to tap into the time and talents of all the staff,” he adds.
But armed with his B.S., M.S., and PhD degrees in psychology from New York University, Jack provided vision and direction to Grove School. For more than 30 years, he owned and managed the school and, through his leadership and expertise, saw to its growth and expansion.
During his annual breaks from work at Grove School, Jack and Helen took their children to far-flung places such as Israel, Nigeria, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Amazon—no, not the modern online marketplace, but that vast region in South America that includes jungles and winding rivers.
The trips gave their growing sons, Stephen, Russell, and Jerry, a world education like no other. Having three young sons in tow did not deter either parent and later, gave their sons a deeper respect for their father and mother.
“Yes, she was intrepid,” says Stephen of his mother, who passed away last December.
Helen and Jack were married for 66 years.
Education wasn’t the only area where Jack left his mark.
He and Helen also sought to promote the arts in town. They were instrumental in the development of the Madison Mile, an innovative showcase of outdoor sculptures that add to downtown Madison’s flair.
“My parents were both very interested in making sure that there’s public art on the properties,” Stephen says.
The couple also advocated having an annual concert on the Madison Green. Usually held on or around July 4, the event draws thousands of locals and out-of-town visitors.
Of course, proper housing for Madison residents has always been vital and, in that regard, Jack and Helen again made a difference.
In 1975, the couple founded Davis Realty with the purpose of building high-quality apartments in the heart of Madison. The intention was to bring new energy to the downtown area and make it an attractive place to live, work, and raise families.
Today, Davis Realty is still owned and managed by family members; Jerry is the managing partner, with brothers Stephen and Russell as active partners. The company has grown to include some of Madison’s historic buildings. Tenants also include iconic businesses and shoreline attractions.
Davis Realty has been known to donate to town services and nonprofit organizations including the Madison Ambulance Association, the Madison Hose Company, the E.C. Scranton Memorial Library, the Madison Senior Center, and the Chamber of Commerce.
Jack was also a member of the Madison Board of Finance for 20 years. In fact, it was during his time with the board that he nudged the town to purchase a piece of land that is now known as the Surf Club.
And that adds to his contributions, this time in the area of recreation.
Reflecting on the board’s hesitation to acquire the property years ago, Jack says, “We, in the Board of Finance, were debating how we spend...the town’s dollars. It sounded like, and it was, a lot of money. But you have to have the vision.”
He continues, “I was troubled by this, because this was such a beautiful piece of land. And I said to myself, ‘Gee, I’d like to own it.’ So, the next meeting, I went to the Board of Finance [and] I said, ‘Fellows, I have a dream. I’m going to buy that property if you don’t.’ Guess what? They bought the property. [It’s] the smartest thing they ever did.”
Today, some regard the Surf Club as the gem of Madison. It encompasses 45 acres on Long Island Sound with a beachfront of 1,200 feet. Amenities include volleyball, basketball, and bocce courts; a picnic area by the water; a playground area; a seasonal concession stand; and a boating area for sailboats and kayaks.
And finally, there’s Jack’s contribution to religion.
He was instrumental in the acquisition of the land to build Temple Beth Tikvah, or House of Hope, a Jewish synagogue on Durham Road.
As Stephen puts it, “Temple Beth Tikvah is a vital constituent of the shoreline, thanks to my parents hosting bagels-and-lox breakfasts every Sunday morning beginning in 1976 and pushing the group relentlessly to buy land and build a synagogue.”
Jack recalls, too, “One might think because of the minority number of people who were of the Jewish faith, that there might be some feeling that they don’t need it. [But] everything was accepted. We had the Lutheran Church, and then came the Episcopal Church. It was crucial you do what you want, [that] your beliefs are perfectly acceptable. It was a good town, a healthy town to be in, and a welcoming town.”
Lessons of a Pushcart
For Jack, the lessons of life came early.
He was a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York, but at the age of 13, he knew he had to help his father with the family income. It was, after all, the mid-1930s and the country was in the midst of the choking grip of the Great Depression.
“This was a very difficult time because the winds of the Depression were upon us in 1929, and everything stopped in New York. My father was a bricklayer [and] was out of work. Roosevelt declared a bank holiday. You couldn’t go to your bank, borrow, [or] get your own money back. All banks were closed,” Jack explains.
“I had to work as a pushcart peddler, helping the family during the time when I was able to, when I was not in school—and that was primarily during the summers,” he adds.
So, he rented a pushcart for 15 cents a day and sold fruits and vegetables in New York.
The experience gave him knowledge of the needs and wants of his customers and the skills to effectively communicate with them.
“My best mentors are my customers,” Jack recalls telling a colleague years later. “I sold fruits and vegetables. I learned more than I could ever imagine. I learned a lot from the books written. But I learn[ed] about the nitty gritty things that are so crucial to communication in life.”
That ability to communicate with others works well with Jack’s philosophy to reach out to those in need.
He relates how, years ago, he extended a helping hand to a minister of the North Madison Congregational Church when a fundraiser was washed out by torrential rain.
Another time, he handed an advance to a contractor working at the Grove School when money was tight for the worker.
“We’re taught every year when we have Passover, that we need to be sensitive to the stranger because we ourselves were slaves in Egypt,” Stephen explains. “So, we know what it is, what slavery is about, and we need to treat others with care and respect and to help others. This is in the same way. Dad grew up in a depression, so he knew what it was like to have nothing.”
“When you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you take it for granted that you do things because they should be done,” he says.
Words of wisdom from the man who will soon celebrate his 194th birthday.
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