Lessons from the life of John B. Davis

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2011 - 2:54 PM

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When resistance to racial integration was erupting into hostility in other urban American school districts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Superintendent John B. Davis was in charge of Minneapolis schools.

Davis, who died Tuesday at age 89, was the architect of a tension-mitigating desegregation plan that offered parents a choice of schools with a variety of curricular styles.

He found allies on an unusually strong school board that included the Rev. David Preus, the future president of the American Lutheran Church, and W. Harry Davis Sr., the founding executive director of the Minneapolis Urban Coalition.

Davis the board member, who died in 2006, always deflected praise for the city’s school integration achievements to Davis the superintendent — and the latter would return the compliment.  Though the two men were not related, they shared a bond of mutual admiration, friendship and dedication to quality education for all.

In John B. Davis’ later years, he joined forces with former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer and the late community college chancellor Jerry Christenson to promote improved literacy education.

When I spoke with him in November 2009, his abiding zeal for learning was apparent as he lamented that literature was not being emphasized in today’s schools:  “Literature has an intellectual base, a sociological base. It leads to argumentation and debate. It provides context for social action. Too many of today’s teachers don’t grow up having been exposed to the great value of literature, to the thrill that comes from being able to portray ideas by pencil on paper.”

Davis never lost that thrill, and he had a marvelous knack for inspiring it in others.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.


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