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Notice about William F. Davis, Jr.

Provost Peggy Agouris sent the following message to the campus community July 20, 2020. - Ed.

Dear Colleagues,

I write to share the news that Emeritus Professor of English William F. Davis, Jr. passed away on July 14, 2020, in Williamsburg, Virginia.

After military service during World War II, Professor Davis earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale.  He taught for two years at the University of New Mexico – which gave him his love of hot chili and admiration for the writing of N. Scott Momaday – before joining the faculty of William & Mary in 1960 as an Instructor in the English department.  He was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1964, Associate Professor in 1968, and Professor in 1979.  Professor Davis served as a Visiting Professor at Leeds University in 1976 and at the University of Hull in 1986.  In 1977 he was Professor at the Poznan Seminar in American Life and Culture (Poland).  In 1984, 1991, and 1996, he taught in the William & Mary Summer Program at Cambridge (England), serving as director in 1984 and 1991.  He retired in 1997, but taught several years more for the Christopher Wren Association.

Professor Davis was renowned as a dedicated teacher, bringing to students his life-long enthusiasm for American Literature and his keen sensitivity to and deep learning in such writers as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Frost, Faulkner, and, especially, Dickinson.  During his career, he taught an unusually wide variety of courses, ranging from Writing 101 to graduate seminars in nineteenth century American writers.  In all his courses, Professor Davis's students benefitted from his care, the time he spent encouraging the fullest exploration of texts, and his insistence on good writing.  Returning his care, many of his students remained in touch and were a great comfort to him during his long illness. 

His career was also marked by unusually selfless service to William & Mary and to his colleagues.  Professor Davis served on many key university-wide faculty committees including Degrees, Faculty Affairs, Educational Policy, Admissions Policy, Personnel Policy, and Graduate Studies; served key roles in university self-studies in 1974 and 1984; and was on virtually all the English department's committees at some point.  With his tireless pursuit of fairness and justice and his precise, logical, and documented approach to questions of governance and procedure, Professor Davis was an invaluable resource and a model colleague, universally respected both within his department and throughout the university.

His colleague and friend Emeritus Professor of English Terry Meyers notes, “Bill was a model of persistent, humane pressure to take the College in better directions as it struggled to escape both the local football scandal of 1951 and the state’s ardent segregationist practices.  He was a member of that generation of the Faculty who from the 1940’s through the 1960’s helped bring the College to recognition as a Public Ivy, and all this at time when the teaching load was 4/4 and included Saturday class sessions, which Bill helped eliminate.”  More personally, Professor Meyers adds, “He was someone who helped me grow from the certainty I had when I arrived that I knew all I needed to know about many things to someone who recognized the power of multiple voices and views and the value even of committees.  We all owe Bill Davis a debt for helping to bring into being the university we know today.”

Professor Davis’s longtime friend Jim Walvin (an early Visiting Kenan Professor in History) urges the William & Mary community to honor particularly Bill’s life before his arrival here:  “This lovely man spoke about his time in the military only very reluctantly, but he was part of that extraordinary generation to whom we all owe so much.  Bill was put in charge of a tank – aged, I think, 19 – when his commander had been killed.  At the time Bill didn't even have a driving license.  The first thing he did was to drive into the wall of a German house and wreck it.  At that moment, the radio ordered them to stop. The war was over.  Bill avoided having to pilot a tank, but not the horror of war.  Bill would recount with incredulity how on his return to the U.S. from Europe people would slap him on the back and congratulate him.  ‘They seemed to think I’d won the war’, he’d say. ‘Bill’, I would say, and still do, ‘You had.  You and your mates.  You won the war’.”

Bill loved being a father to Claire and a granddaddy to Alyssa and Mikhayla.  He taught them a love of reading and the out-of-doors, particularly during summers in Maine.  Throughout his life he was sustained by the love of his wife Marlene Davis, also a literary scholar and renowned teacher at William & Mary.  Professor Walvin says, “She tended to Bill throughout his declining years with an unflinching devotion few could match.  He loved Emily Dickinson’s poems, and it is characteristic that Marlene read them to him in his last hours.”

The family hopes to hold a reading of Emily Dickinson’s poems in celebration of Bill when public health conditions permit.  Contributions in honor of Professor Davis would be welcome to Respite Care at the United Methodist Church, which provided many afternoons of enriching care for him (WUMC Respite, 500 Jamestown Rd, Williamsburg, VA 23185), or to a public classical music station (he enjoyed music and was a supporter of public radio). 




Peggy Agouris


William & Mary

The Brafferton

P.O. Box 8795

Williamsburg, Virginia 23187-8795

(757) 221-1993 (office)

(757) 221-1510 (fax)