As superintendent in Minneapolis, he brought the district through the social upheaval of the 1960s and '70s.
John B. Davis, who as superintendent led Minneapolis schools into desegregation and later resuscitated such prominent local institutions as Macalester College and the Minnesota Children's Theatre, died Tuesday in Oakdale.
He was 89 and lived in White Bear Lake in his later years. The cause of death is believed to be sporadic Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, according to his daughter Susan Flygare.
Davis was head of Minneapolis schools from 1967 to 1975, a time of great change in schools nationwide and in Minneapolis. By all accounts, he was a strong and humane administrator and a gifted advocate of innovation and change.
In a 2001 interview, he said he found it exciting to tackle challenges that others might shy from. "I seemed to be good at problem-solving, and there are plenty of problems out there, given this world of human fallacy and frailty,'' he said. "Each step of the way, I listened and observed, and sought wise counsel from the people around me, and tried to get the very best people into the positions where they could do the most good. That was fundamental, because unless you've been in the arena, you never know how hard the lion can bite.''
Davis was born and raised in Haverhill, Mass., and received his bachelor's degree in history from the University of New Hampshire in 1944. He earned his master's and doctorate in education from Harvard University in 1949 and 1962, respectively. From 1942 to 1944 he served in the Army.
He was hired as Minneapolis' superintendent in 1967, a time of great change, particularly in regard to civil rights. Davis introduced a voluntary busing plan in 1969, and in 1970 moved to a system of mandatory busing and school pairing.
"John put his job on the line several times," said Mitch Trockman, who recalled one instance involving his desegregation proposal. "He told board members either they went along with that or he could not stay for a school district that would not do that." Davis saw the district through later court-ordered desegregation with aplomb, associates said. During this era, Davis himself fought for social reform, marching with Coretta Scott King and protesting the Vietnam War.
In 1975, Davis was asked to take over the presidency of Macalester College in St. Paul, which was struggling with student unrest and budget problems. Davis won the respect of benefactors and faculty members, as well as students.
Nine years later, having improved its finances and restored good relations with the school's chief benefactor, DeWitt Wallace, Davis resigned.
His reputation as the titan of troubleshooters was cemented in his next role: interim president of the Children's Theatre Company and School, which had been rocked by a sex scandal. Over 18 months, Davis helped the theater rebuild its resources and reputation.
He later held interim leadership positions at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University, Mankato), and both at Minneapolis schools and the financially troubled St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1993.
In 1994, Minnesota Monthly magazine named him its Man of the Year.
"There are only a handful of people I've known in Minnesota who could compare to his accomplishments. It is extraordinary the way he could step into situations," said his friend, former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer.
"He is in that handful of people who was a great man who did great things and was a good and decent man. His commitment to the mission always took precedence, never his ego."
A clarion voice
In the years since, he continued to serve on many business, academic, arts and literacy boards. He also contributed widely to public debate about education.
Davis' style signature was a colorful bow tie, and he was an eloquent and motivating speaker. During his superintendency, a teacher said of him, "He could give somebody directions to the corner drugstore and it would come out sounding like the Gettysburg Address.''
Davis himself was modest about his successes, crediting those he worked with and saying of his various salvage roles, "I knew I would do best to capture finer minds to help me. Myself? I was a migrant worker.''
His first wife, Barbara, a teacher, died in 1983. He married his second wife, Joy, a professor and writer, in 1986.
In addition to his wife and his daughter Susan, he is survived by five other daughters, Nancy Lasar of Washington Depot, Conn., Martha Anne Pattee, of Evanston, Ill., Deborah Madson of St. Paul, Rebecca Goltz of Grinnell, Iowa, and Sarah Davis of Minneapolis; two sons, John B. Davis III, of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Lincoln Davis, of Edina; two stepsons, William King of Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Russell King of North Oaks; brother Kingsbury Davis (Tudy) of Haverhill, Mass., and at least a dozen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. at House of Hope Presbyterian Church, 797 Summit Av., St. Paul, followed by a reception.