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Mack Williams column: Memorial to ‘JJ’

In “catching up” on the obituaries the other day, I discovered the death of an 82-year-old friend: “Jay Jefferson Davis, Jr.,” or as he referred to himself, “JJ.”

Several years ago, he stopped in at the train station/natural history building of the Danville Science Center and began talking about the “old days,” of both the railroad and himself.

JJ wore a casual, non-descript hat, typifying “Briggs & Stratton” fashion.

I called it “non-descript,” but this ordinary hat was made “unordinary” by the metal badges which JJ had fastened to it over time. The most prominent was the “SR” of Southern Railway, the logo of Norfolk and Western, along with some of those old rail systems “subsumed” by Southern, then by Norfolk-Southern.

I even recall a badge emblazoned with “Southern Gives a Green Light to Innovation,” the sign which I remember seeing at the Spencer yard office with my father (just outside the building, I think).

JJ’s love of trains extended only to steam, representing his youthful “good old days.” He didn’t have much regard for the former streamlined diesels from the “halcyon” days of my youth.

Of course, JJ loved “Southern,” but another railway filled a great portion of his conversation, the old “Richmond and Danville Railroad,” affectionately known locally as “The Dick and Willie.” It could be said that his fascination with it was of a purely “romantic,” not personal nature, since it became part of Southern Railway in 1894, long before his birth.

JJ would sit there in the old station lobby, conversing with me, and when a patron entered, excitedly ask them: “Have you heard of The Dick and Willie?” Quickly upon the heels of this question, I would explain: “That stands for the old Richmond and Danville Railroad,” not wishing the museum-going public to think JJ might be addressing them “indelicately.”

Most guests, so questioned, came up wanting (in his opinion), so “JJ” would give them a quick dissertation on the old “expired” railroad.

One day, JJ’s “rail zeal” led him to say: “I think y’all ought to move all of the taxidermied animals, rocks, fossils, etc. out of the old train station and turn the whole thing into a railroad museum!” Not wishing to hurt his feelings, I did concede that we should do more for railroading than we had done. (Since then, we’ve added a large n-scale model railroad layout to our model of the Wreck of the Old 97).

On several occasions, JJ told me of the railroad songs he had written himself and submitted to country singers (one, I think, to Marty Robbins, who had praised it).

When talking of his compositions, JJ would then sing some of them to me in a most pleasant “western-style” voice. Listening, I could easily imagine him once having been a member of “The Sons of the Pioneers” or the present-day “Riders in the Sky.”

His talents were not only confined to the musical note, but extended to the written word. JJ put together a couple of “homemade” books, with some help from a lady with print shop experience.

JJ’s book of “Old 97 Ghost stories” is his own fiction, told in a manner which children would appreciate. He said somebody once thought they were actual ghost stories (like those I read as a child when reading “Tarheel Ghosts,” checked out from the Granite Quarry School library).

The other book is about JJ’s family when he was growing up, complete with black-and-white (now, aged “sepia”) pictures of uncles in U.S. Army WWII uniforms and a “kid” sister who pre-deceased him some years ago. I told him she looked as if she had been a sweet child, judging from that picture of her as a 6 year-old. JJ replied that she remained sweet throughout her life.

I sometimes drive past that old, vacant, dilapidated house in which JJ grew up. Many of the neighboring houses pictured in his old snapshots are gone, replaced by businesses along that formerly residential street, named “Industrial Avenue.”

I usually end the weekly installments of my column with some sort of “twist” or poignancy, but this week, the ending consists of JJ’s own last words to me:

“Next week, I’ll be going into the hospital for a coronary bypass. If everything goes okay, I’ll see you in a few weeks. If not, I’ll see you ‘up there!’ “

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