Posted: Oct. 18, 2006
EDWARD R. "NED" DAVIS, A MAN OF GLAD GRACE
By Celia Cohen
Edward R. Davis, a lyrical grand old man known to all simply as "Ned," died Wednesday morning at home in Dover at the age of 78, closing nearly half a century of a vigorous and essential public life that made him the touchstone of official Delaware.
It was not an unexpected day. His health had been precarious for years, but he kept coming back, as if answering the call of a state that did not know what it would do without him.
His daughter Mary C. Davis, who worked with him in his lobbying firm of Ned Davis Associates, said she found him when she arrived to take him to a session of kidney dialysis, and although he was still warm and she put his head in her lap, she knew he was gone.
Ned Davis was an unforgettable figure. In appearance he stood stooped and gnarled, not looking like much, but in a fairer world he would have had the physique of Mercury, the chiseled messenger to the gods, because that is what Ned was -- someone who shuttled to all the power centers of Delaware to bring counsel and compromise.
He was a molder and a mold breaker, unfettered to convention with the reach and ruminative instincts of a Renaissance man.
He was a newspaperman who crossed over to politics. He was the most powerful press secretary that Delaware ever saw when he worked for Gov. Charles L. Terry Jr. in the 1960s, and he counseled every other governor since who would listen to him. He was the model for the modern lobbying corps.
He was a Democratic national committeeman with no time for Richard Nixon, but he worked loyally for John W. Rollins Sr., the Republican business executive who called Nixon a friend.
He was devoted to hunting and quoting poetry and playing cards at the Maple Dale Country Club. He wrote better than any journalist alive, and people cherished and saved his letters. He was thoughtful and sociable and witty, and he deserves to be remembered by the words of William Butler Yeats, who wrote, "How many loved your moments of glad grace."
Ned Davis thrived on politics. Not too many years ago, in really dangerous health, he went anyway to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's annual crab feast in Milford, even though it took a wheelchair and an oxygen tank to get him there. As recently as Sunday, he attended an event for Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the Democratic candidate for attorney general.
"He was a Democrat to the core, but he always played fair. He always had a twinkle in his eye, and he set the standard for the way that politicians and lobbyists should behave," said W. Laird Stabler Jr., a past Republican national committeeman whose reputation also transcends partisanship.
"When I think of Ned Davis, I always smile. Anyone who can have that said about him would probably think he'd done a pretty good job."
As word of his death spread, the accolades poured in from Delawareans who found him indispensable and irreplaceable.
Gov. Minner, a two-term Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, who was a two-term Republican governor, used similar words in remembering Davis, with Minner calling him "a dear and trusted friend" and Castle describing him as a "trusted adviser in Delaware political circles."
Michele M. Rollins, the face of the Rollins enterprises since her husband died in 2000, has known and relied on Davis for 30 years. "He is an institution in Delaware, he is part of our family, and he is what statesmanship is for lobbying. He worked for the best interest of Delaware, his client and the other side."
Chief Justice Myron T. Steele goes back with Davis, as so many leading Delawareans do, to a goose blind while hunting in 1970 as a deputy attorney general in the company of a judge. "All the members of Delaware's judiciary counted on him as a friend. He was always tuned into our issues and helped any way he could," Steele said.
There was no one happier than Davis when Minner appointed Steele to the state's top judicial post. It meant Delaware had a Kent County Democrat as its governor and a Kent County Democrat as its chief justice, and his deep association with both had helped to make it happen.
Gary B. Patterson, a lobbyist and a Republican who nevertheless was part of Minner's kitchen cabinet along with Davis, said there was no one with better style. "He was so agreeable to disagree with. I'm sure we all have enemies, but Ned had the fewest of us all," Patterson said.
Davis was born in Laurel, but he was made for Dover. State Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Democratic president pro tem from Bridgeville, remembered meeting Davis there as early as 1947, when they were members of Boys State, Davis as a senator and Adams as an alternate.
Ten years later, after an eclectic mix of English and philosophy courses in college and time spent in the Marine Corps, Davis was back for good. His first paying job in Legislative Hall was as a newspaperman, but he was drawn to the magisterial presence of Charlie Terry, then the chief justice, and went to work for him when he was elected governor in 1964.
Actually, Davis did some work for Terry before he was the governor, as he confessed in an account of the Terry administration he wrote for the Delaware Heritage Commission in 2000.
The night before the Democratic state convention when Terry knew he would be "drafted" off the bench to run for governor, he called Davis to his Dover home and asked him to write his acceptance speech. "Today it would probably cause quaking and anguish in the editorial rooms, but I really didn't think much about it as I was extremely fond of the chief justice," Davis wrote.
Davis switched sides of the notebook some more, covering the election with what he insisted was a dutiful neutrality and then joining the administration. Officially he was the press secretary, but really a chief aide along with William T. Quillen, a lawyer who was the administrative assistant until Terry made him a judge, the start of a judicial career that took him to the Superior Court, Court of Chancery and Supreme Court.
From Quillen's perspective, Terry and Davis could not have been a better fit. "Ned enjoyed the same things Terry did. He enjoyed hunting and the race track and playing cards," Quillen said.
Terry was out as governor after a term, defeated by his stubbornness in leaving the National Guard in Wilmington long after the 1968 riots and by a heart attack during the campaign season. John Rollins snapped up Davis to work for him, and while there, he took on some outside clients in the first manifestation of modern lobbying in Dover. He formed Ned Davis Associates in 1974.
"He really did start the contract lobbying business in Delaware," said Robert L. Byrd, a leading state lobbyist who got to Dover as a Democratic state representative in 1974.
"He was the dean for those of us who came into the profession. He was the greater among equals, sort of the mentor to us all. We lost an icon. It's going to be a different place," said David S. Swayze, a lawyer and lobbyist who was a chief of staff to Republican Gov. Pierre S. du Pont in the 1970s, although he was a Democrat himself.
Davis had an impressive list of business clients, even as he kept the faith as a liberal Democrat and served as his party's national committeeman from 1972 to 1988. He was around for landmark legislative initiatives like the Financial Center Development Act, which brought the banks to the state in 1981. It sometimes has been said there would have been no sweeping ban on indoor smoking in 2002 if Davis, who was ailing at the time, had been able to lobby against it.
Legislative Hall was an extension of home for Davis, often full of family members. His daughter Mary lobbied with him. His daughter Jessica was a receptionist for the governor. His great nephew Alan G. Davis had business there as the chief magistrate for the Justice of the Peace Courts. Other Davises showed up, too.
People who were not literally family nevertheless were treated that way. Davis gave a little dog to state Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, a Wilmington Democrat. He cooked scrapple at a pancake breakfast sponsored by state Rep. Stephanie A. Ulbrich, a Newark Republican.
He teamed up with Glenn C. Kenton, a Republican secretary of state for the du Pont administration from 1977 to 1985, to raise the money for official portraits of first ladies Elise R.W. du Pont and Jeanne Tribbitt, the wife of Democratic Gov. Sherman W. Tribbitt.
Davis started a tradition in 1984, while du Pont was in office, of hosting a lobster dinner at Woodburn, the governor's house, for the governor, some favored lawmakers, Cabinet secretaries and staff members as the legislative session wound down in June. It was stag, so after Minner was elected, Mary Davis took over to host an all-women gathering, and Ned Davis relegated himself to taking some male legislators out to dinner.
It was all part of what made Ned Davis so essential. "He understood perhaps better than anybody the relationship between personal relationships and the exercise of power," said William E. Manning, a Republican lawyer who was a chief of staff for du Pont.
"We've grown much more coarse in our interactions. If everyone could sit back and say, how would Ned handle this, we'd all be better off."
It is fitting that a memorial for Davis has been scheduled for Sunday at 4 p.m. at Dover Downs, a Rollins property naturally in Dover, the capital city where he left his indelible mark. It also is fitting that it comes deep in the election season, when partisanship is at its highest, and hundreds and hundreds of Democrats and Republicans will cease their hostilities to share a tribute to Ned.
"We're just sorry he didn't vote absentee ballot," Mary Davis said.