An “Unorthodox Expert,” Davis Led Students in Rigorous Research

By Peter Frederick and Steve Morillo
  December 18, 2003

The following was entered into the faculty minutes in honor of the retirement of Professor of History George Davis last spring:

George and Ann Davis came to Wabash College in the fall of 1966, and for the next 37 years George taught a vast variety of American and English History. These included upper level and freshman seminars about colonial America, Tudor and Stuart England, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the 1950s, Winston Churchill, Nixon and Watergate, the modern Presidency, and histories of American medicine, cities, and humor. 

What has connected these courses has been George’s insistence on leading students in rigorous library research to non-traditional sources, artifacts of material culture, and diverse interpretations, insisting always that they come up with their own interpretations. The History Department’s capstone senior research seminar was his own capstone, his most singular course. By having students write papers on a 20th century Indiana Supreme Court decision or the career of an Indiana congressman, George made each student the world’s expert on the topic, and many of them have testified in exit interviews that this paper was their proudest academic achievement.

Not all students have such fond memories of the professor whose terse comments on student papers are infamous. A graduate from the class of ’85, now a high school teacher, recalled a paper a friend wrote on "the real cause of the Civil War." There were no comments throughout the paper until the end: "Greg. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.  F."

But the story of a 2003 graduate reveals how our students wear down even the most rigorous teachers. A recent five-page Davis paper had two comments: on page 3, "this is totally wrong," and on page 4, "this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard." At the end: "A-."

George’s crusty and terse exterior style hides a soft, generous, caring person inside. He was often a freshman advisor, he and Ann graciously entertained students at their home, and he offered his yard and expert barbecuing talents to the annual spring departmental picnic. In each of the some 20 years he coached the tennis team, he faithfully drove them to Florida for spring break. And back—at 80 miles an hour!

As a tennis player himself, out of shape, cigarette dangling from his mouth, he regularly beat all comers into his early 60s. When the cigarettes left, so did his winning ways.

But as a colleague who reads widely and seemingly knows everything, the more esoteric and obscure the better, on everything from farm implements and agrarian politics to U.S.-China relations and the origins of clocks, to the young Churchill and the old Reagan, George Davis is still a winner.  In countless ways we will miss this unorthodox colleague, and wish him a retirement free of student papers and full of good new books to read.

Peter Frederick and Steve Morillo are professors of history at Wabash College.