Monday, June 27, 2005

Eulogy for John Davis

The memorial service for John Davis was yesterday in Claremont. I had written the following, and then Stan Davis asked if I'd read this at the service. I was honored, and said so.

There was a large turnout, I was sitting with Andy Roth & Liz Boyd on one side, Kenny Hamada & "Uncle" Hal Winton on the other.

There were 5 speakers. In relay terms, I was the anchor.

Earlier that day Andy & I had taken a memory loop over the top of Baldy, where we covered all matters sacred and profane. We took the short route up the mountain, using the Helen Klein Memorial Offramp up to the Sierra Club Hut. The streams were running full, and the Bighorns were smoking Pall Mall straights and shitting in them, despite the wails of the Sierra Club dorks who were doing their first solo unaided summit bids.

I hope you are doing well!



Eulogy for John Davis


This eulogy is for John Davis, from a man who met him late and knew him not well enough. This tribute is seen through the prism of ultrarunning, and makes no claims beyond that narrow scope.

John Davis died this past Sunday June 20 after a short, fierce battle with cancer. The specifics are mercifully brief, and he died proud and upright, with his wife Carolyn, and sons Stan and Ken in attendance. He is preceded in death by Phyllis, mother of Stan and Ken. He was 71 years old.

I last saw John on June 11, appropriately enough at a birthday run at Claremont’s Wilderness Park. I knew he had cancer, and was touched to see him stride to the start line in his inimitable gangly stride. After he finished, he began to quote the finer points of standard deviance in statistical analysis with piercing logic and comedy. I knew right then that the meds had not gotten the better of him.

John came to running in the early 1970s, while he was one of many harried, overworked aerospace engineers working on manned and unmanned space projects. The demands of the job were making him a cranky customer at home. One day his wife Phyllis went to Big 5, bought him a pair of “jogging shoes”, gave them to John, told him in her inimitable soft Tulsa voice to put them on, and come back when he felt better. And he did.

He began to trace the running arc from the 5k and 10k, through the marathon, and arrived at the ultra portal. I don’t know where and how, but there he was. I know that by the time I met him in 1989, he was an iconic figure in California Ultra circles; one of the First Generation Old Timers like Norm Klein, Baz Hawley, Ken Hamada, and Bob Holtel.

Baldy Peaks 50k was one of his legacies. The Inaugural "Zero-eth" Baldy Peaks was run as a trial effort in December 1988. There was no snow that month on top of Baldy. When the day was ended they all came home and Phyllis Davis made the lads dinner. Phyllis was a key element of the race that ended only with her sudden and untimely death in December 2000. She was missed by all of us.

This race is a blend of the artistry, precision and eye to maximal sensory overload that can only come from the mind of an aerospace engineer (John) and a classically-trained musician (Ken). Stan (the computer guy) provided SysOps support.

Joe Franko, a long-time family friend added "...as I recall, the credit should go to John's son Ken, who laid out the course as part of a college project at Cal Poly, Pomona. We were students together then. He was an undergraduate in mathematics and I a graduate student." So who said that science, math and pain don't mix?

Baldy Peaks became a rite of passage for many runners including Scott Jurek, Gabriel Flores, Karl Meltzer, Brandon Sybrowsky, Ian Torrence, Ben Hian, Jim O’Brien and Tom Nielsen for starters. The amazing women who’ve come and made their names include Sherry Johns Mahieu, Krissy Moehl Sybrowsky, Julie Arter, and Lorraine Gersitz, to name several.

The race was always a family affair, with a civic focus. It was a benefit for charities like the Pomona Valley Dental Clinic, which brought elementary dental care to the underserved working poor.

John decided to retire the race after 2000. At this point Andy Roth and Larry Gassan took it over. Both had run Baldy as their first ultra.

John was one of the founding members of the Southern California Ultra Series, back when there were only eight races on the calendar.

John was a fast friend to many others in ultras. He was a hard-working friend to the Western States 100, Angeles Crest 100, Javelina 100, and numerous other 50s and 50ks here on the west coast. When he didn’t drive, he flew his own plane up to Auburn, for instance, worked the HAM radios, then turned around and flew home.

Any more on the business of running becomes a cascade of numbers, splits, and statistical drizzle. Let’s pull back and look at the real man.

The world is generally unkind to men who are tall, gangly, and don’t settle matters with mendacity and blunt force. John was a stand up man in a bent world. He was a true friend to the people in his life. He knew that some took advantage of it, but refused to think small.

I knew John as a complex, multi-faceted man who did things his own way. Sometimes the very things that made him unique were maddening, and yet endearing to the people around him. His training and viewpoints as an engineer sometimes made the sociology of his decisions “interesting”, but his intentions were good and his heart was in the right place when he made these calls.

Finally, John once told me that when he was fifteen, he was on a train, and saw his flickering reflection in the window. He wondered who he really was—there was an awkward boy’s face with glasses was staring back at him. In that instant, I really knew who he was. He was a deeply caring man who shared his heart with his family and friends the best way he knew how; which was to let them discover all that they could do, which was what they never thought they could. That moment of awareness stayed with him to the end of his life.

God keep you, JED.

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