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D.G. Martin column: Remembering that Walter Davis

A lot of people think that the big Walter Davis Library at UNC-Chapel Hill is named after the great basketball player.
Ned Cline, the biographer of the Walter Davis for whom the building is actually named, tells how one Chapel Hill student told another that “the library should not have been named for Walter Davis, because Phil Ford was a much better basketball player for the Tar Heel team.”
“The Walter Davis Story: One Man Who Made a Difference,” profiles a man, who, until his death a year ago, was perhaps the most influential non-elected person in North Carolina politics.
Davis “held court” in offices at a hotel in the Research Triangle Park area. “It would be an exaggeration,” writes Cline, “to say that as many legislative polices were decided at the Radisson Governor’s Inn as in the halls of the legislature, but maybe not by much.”
But few North Carolinians outside the political inner circles knew who he was. And most of those who did know about his importance knew very little about how and why he was able to exercise so much influence.
Cline’s book is an important first step in understanding the basis of Davis’ power. “The Walter Davis Story” was underwritten by Davis’s widow. In some respects it is a “family book” that tells the Davis story very sympathetically. For instance, there are pages and pages that detail Davis’ generous financial gifts to individuals and institutions.
Cline is a respected Greensboro journalist who graduated from Catawba College and began his career at the Salisbury Post. He does not conceal Davis’ “warts,” like a prison sentence for violation of federal tax laws, a bigamous marriage, a secret daughter, estrangement from another daughter and a gambling compulsion that drove him to risk hundreds of thousands of dollars at the card tables of Las Vegas and casinos all over the world.
Davis grew up in and around Elizabeth City. He learned the basics of the trucking business from Malcolm McLean, who later made a fortune from the shipping container business. That experience helped Davis land a job in California working for trucking company owner Fred Rumbley, who quickly developed Davis talents as a “friend maker” for his business. He sent Davis on the road with a big expense account and directions to develop good relations with prospective customers. Later, Rumbley backed Davis in a trucking business in the Texas oil fields. Its success led to an oil production company that was ultimately sold to Armand Hammer’s Occidental Petroleum, resulting in a fortune that may have exceeded a hundred million dollars.
His wealth and his ability to entertain lavishly were put to work in North Carolina politics. One of his earliest forays resulted in funds for the library that carries his name. In the 1970s, when the electric power and other utilities operations of UNC-Chapel Hill were sold for millions of dollars, the state of North Carolina needed that money to help fund a budget deficit. Although President William Friday discouraged university campuses from lobbying in Raleigh, Davis went to work. Cline writes, “Davis, however, refused to sit on the sidelines, regardless of Friday’s wishes. ‘He can tell the chancellor what to do,’ Davis told a fellow trustee, ‘but he can’t tell me what to do.’ ”
Davis pulled out all the stops. UNC-Chapel Hill got most of the money from the utilities sale and was able to fund the much-needed library.
The library campaign established a pattern with Davis advocating special projects not on the official university’s priority list. As a consequence, Davis had rocky relationships with university presidents Dick Spangler and Molly Broad.
What was the secret of Davis’s success? Cline writes, “If money was the mother’s milk of politics, Walter Davis had demonstrated that he could be a one-man dairy.”
– – –
“The Walter Davis Story” is available at the Literary Bookpost in Salisbury.
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.

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