Remembering Harry Davis, 1921-2015
It centered on “The Great Issues of Politics,” and I initially thought it was terrible. There was no discussion of presidential elections, the rough and tumble of partisan politics (President Nixon had resigned the month before), or public policy. It had little of the immediate, adrenaline-cranking quality that my high school civics class conveyed. Its text—Charles F. Andrain’s Political Life and Social Change—focused on questions such as “Who Governs?” and “Establishment of Legitimate Authority.” It was dull. But Professor Davis, as I came to know him that semester, was anything but dull. He was active in local, state, and Democratic Party politics, broadly conversant in national politics, and profoundly interested in America and the world. He was smart, caring, and occasionally wickedly funny.
So, how could this interesting man be teaching such a dull course?
I came to realize, over the course of my Beloit career, that the course wasn’t dull; I was dull. Professor Davis, in that class, a couple of others, and countless conversations outside of class, started my intellectual maturation. He helped move me from fixation on the instant to appreciation of, and thirst for, more general and enduring questions. He introduced me to politics as a community building enterprise and an academic discipline. He encouraged me to pursue graduate study and followed my academic career with interest, frequently sending notes celebrating my accomplishments. He was my teacher: facilitator, coach, and parent.
College graduates tend to look back at their time on campus as the “classic” period of their school’s history. For my cohort of classmates, the mid-1970s was that, and the department of government—Paul Pollock (acerbic and brilliant), Milt Feder (avuncular and brilliant), and Warner Mills (scattered and brilliant)—was woven together by the intelligence, grace, and good cheer of its chairman, Professor Davis. His students and his colleagues were fortunate to have him in a position of authority, easily borne and gently held, over his 42 years at Beloit.
The last time we chatted in person was in Beloit’s faculty lounge. He, for the umpteenth time, asked me to call him “Harry.” I told him that he would always be “Professor Davis” to me. He still is … and I still have the Andrain textbook that I hated as a first-semester college student on my bookshelf. It will always be there, a reminder of the man who, in a very real sense, introduced me and hundreds of other students to the rest of our lives. The man who taught, among other things, ancient Greek political thought personified eudemonia—the good life—for all around him. He is missed, but he is still about, as pieces of him continue to live through those he touched.
Joseph F. Kobylka’78 is an Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor and associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.