Of all the men and women who have given the Carver Legacy Address, in its 38-year history, Lt. Gen. Russell C. Davis may be the only one who can say the following:
George Washington Carver used to give him candy.
Davis, 74, was born and raised in Tuskegee, Ala., where Carver headed the agriculture department at what is now known as Tuskegee University.
“I was in the nursery school run by the education department,” Davis said. “We’d call it day care or child development today. We used to come out of the building and down some steps and went out to play on the swings.
“There was a guy out there in a white coat. He was tall, or at least he looked tall to me because I was so short. And he’d give us candy. My mother said later on, when I was old enough to know about it and appreciate it, ‘That was Dr. Carver.’”
So while it might be stretching matters to suggest that Davis, who will present the annual Carver lecture on Feb. 16 at Simpson College, had a personal relationship with Carver, it’s no exaggeration to point out the impact the great scientist had on Davis’s life.
“Growing up in Tuskegee, you see what African-Americans can do,” he said.
That includes the Davis family. His grandfather, Matthew Woods, worked in Carver’s department at the university as a professor of animal husbandry. In fact, Woods accepted Carver’s advice and obtained his master’s degree at Iowa State University, the school from which Carver graduated after he spent time at Simpson.
Davis said his grandparents often invited Carver, a bachelor, to family meals, especially during holidays.
“My aunt recently turned 93, and she still remembers when he came over,” Davis said. “She said he was very polite. They had to dress up a little bit when he came over, because he always wore a tie. He was a little bit formal. He was a nice guy and a great personality, from what I hear.”
Davis said his parents, Marcus and Winfred, worked at the Tuskegee Army Airfield, which was home to the now-famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, the first African-American military aviators in U.S. history.
“The Tuskegee Airmen had a major, major impact on my life,” Davis said.
In 1958, Davis began his military career as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Air Force. Following training, he was assigned to the Air Force Base in Lincoln, Neb., where he stayed until released from active duty in April 1965.
He then joined the Iowa Air National Guard in Des Moines.
Davis said Carver was a member of the Cadet Corps, a forerunner to ROTC programs, while he was a student at Iowa State.
“In my life, I was able to move to Iowa and take advantage of the educational opportunities there, and that kind of set the stage for the rest of my life,” he said. “There are some parallels there” with Carver.
Davis remained in Iowa for nearly 14 years, raising two children, earning a law degree from Drake University and working at what then was called the American Republic insurance company. He served in numerous National Guard command and staff positions, from squadron pilot to director of operations.
“They were good years, really,” he says of his time in Iowa. “I had been in the Air Force and had done a lot of traveling and sitting nuclear alert and that kind of thing. Coming to Iowa was kind of a change of pace.”
That changed in 1979, when Davis headed to the East Coast, eventually commanding the 113th Tactical Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard in the District of Columbia.
From 1998 to 2002, he served as chief of the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., where he was responsible for formulating, developing and coordinating all policies and plans for more than half a million Army and Air National Guard personnel.
“There weren’t enough hours in the day,” he said. “You manage things and lead people. You can’t manage people. You’ve got to lead them, especially when you’re trying to get people to do things they don’t want to do.”
One critical test came during the September, 2001, terrorist attacks. The next morning, in his office in Crystal City, Va., Davis spoke over the public address system.
“I said, ‘We cannot allow the terrorists to stop us from doing what we have to do. One of these days we’ll have to do something back. In the meantime, what I need to have you do is come to work every day and do your job, just like you did before it happened.”
Davis retired in 2002 with the rank of lieutenant general. Since then, he has worked with the Tuskegee Airmen Association, including serving as the group’s president. His work helped lead the surviving airmen to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2007.
“That was a great time for them,” he said.
These days, Davis is writing a book. He recently received the lifetime achievement award from the National Guard.
He is looking forward to his Simpson College visit. The title of his lecture is, “Role Models and Dreams: Carver’s Inspiration.”
“This is special, obviously,” he said of being awarded the Carver Medal. “Because I did know him and had an opportunity to meet Dr. Carver, albeit as a 5-year-old.”
But Davis is determined that future generations also know of Carver and his legacy. That’s why he took his 8-year-old great-granddaughter on a tour of the Carver Museum in Tuskegee.
“I took her to make sure she knows and understands who Carver is the heritage of what he left,” Davis said.
His goal is the same for his Simpson College visit.
The George Washington Carver Legacy event will be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 16 in Smith Chapel on the Simpson College campus. Admission is free and the public is welcome.