Elaine Davis — mother, author, dancer and teacher — made the most of every moment of her too-short life.
Davis, a longtime professor at St. Cloud State University, died July 31, six months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was 59.
She leaves behind three children, a grieving community and the legacy of an exuberant life, lived with purpose, curiosity and joy. In her 59 years, Davis authored two books on Minnesota life and history, visited 80 countries and taught for a quarter of a century at the same university she attended as an undergraduate.
“My mom lived life on a whole other level,” wrote her daughter Andrea Davis Jensen. “In her lifetime, she accomplished 10 times what some do. Her friends and family describe mom as a lover of life, one-of-a-kind, generous, passionate, kind, full of laughter and light, energetic, determined, dynamic, a fearless leader and a natural storyteller.”
It was a life to be celebrated, not mourned, and Elaine Davis wanted to be there for the party. Months before her death, she gathered hundreds of friends and family, all dressed in her favorite colors of blue and green. After the speeches, testimonials and hugs, there was dancing — a fitting way to honor a woman who started dancing in her 50s, moving from classes to competitions throughout the Twin Cities. West Coast Swing was her favorite dance style.
“It was joyous,” her daughter said.
Davis, who taught management at St. Cloud State for more than 25 years, lived life to the fullest.
“She thought a day was not productive unless 10 things got done,” Jensen said.
Davis grew up on a dairy farm, one of 11 children of Orrin and Catherine Davis of Lake Park, Minn. She drew on her family’s experiences for her first book, “Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do: 80 Years of a Minnesota Farm Family,” published in 2005.
Two years later, she turned her curiosity about Minnesota’s moonshining history into a second book, “Minnesota 13: Stearns County’s ‘Wet’ Wild Prohibition Days.” Minnesota 13 was the infamous corn liquor distilled on many Minnesota farms during Prohibition — even Davis’ grandparents dabbled — and her book caught the attention of local filmmakers Norah Shapiro and Kelly Nathe, who plan to turn the story into a documentary. Davis worked with them on the project throughout her illness and lived long enough to see a rough cut.
Davis earned her doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her books, she published more than 40 academic pieces and racked up honors at St. Cloud State, including Teacher of the Year. Davis, who had dreamed of traveling since she was a little girl on the farm, poring over atlases and National Geographic magazines, would go on to run four international study programs for the university as she traveled the globe.
“Whether it was renting an apartment in Paris for a month, riding camels in Egypt, hiking through rain forests in South America or sitting with monks in Thailand, Elaine always had an amazing travel story to tell,” Jensen said.
Davis is survived by her three children, Cassie, Andrea and Mathew; her parents; and siblings Gary, Tom, Tim, Mitzi, Nita, Cathy, Bill and Becky. She was preceded in death by brothers Russell and Dan.
“We are so proud to have her as our mom,” Jensen said. “She was a mom to her students, our friends, everyone she met on her travels. … She inspired everyone she met.”
Contributions to complete the “Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass” documentary can be directed to the Independent Film Project, in care of “MN 13 Doc,” 550 Vandalia St., Suite 120, St. Paul, MN 55114.
Jennifer Brooks 612-673-4008