Neil Owen Davis – 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

Some of us are formed in pretty concrete,
specific ways by the families from which we come and the institutions which they
love. That was certainly the case with Neil Davis. He was very close to his
family. He had this very strong sense of this extended family, and then when he
got to Auburn and there was the Auburn family, and he just grafted that own to
his own family and so the people here he respected and loved he respected and
loved to the very end of his life. They were was closest friends, they were his family. His three children were no more his family than the Auburn family and the
Presbyterian family. I don’t really think you can understand him unless you
understand him in that kind of structure. My father was a congenital optimist. He
always believed that things would get better and that was a wonderfully
positive thing to be around. I never really understood and appreciated
everything that Neil Davis probably did that I did not know about. He was born in
1914, right on the cusp of World War I, so as a kid he was through that, but the
20s really had a formative influence on him. The narcissism, the materialism, the incredible excesses of the 1920s, and
he came to Auburn in 1931, three young kids 17-18 years old, immediately went to
the journalism program, The Plainsman, was editor to the Plainsman in 1934 and so
what he saw now was this world of excess in the 20s collapse, in the 30s and
to him it was a sort of moral paradigm. When you live in a world of excess,
ultimately the Mills of God grinds slowly but exceedingly fine and you pay
the price and the 1930s was the price, and the whole world was just collapsing
all around him. He started out thinking he was going to be a business major, but
he just was interested in everything, you know, being slotted into too narrow
curriculum, I think, didn’t appeal. He was much more interested in liberal arts and
taking all the different kinds of courses he could, and then he got
involved on The Plainsman and that interest really sparked his deciding to
be a newspaper person, but I remember when the bus boycott was going on in
Montgomery, and he, I remember his saying one day gleefully he just loved it that
sometimes when Martin Luther King was with a group of boycotters on the street
somebody would come by and spit on him and he would say, “Bless you brother,” so he
really, really resonated with what was going on there, but frankly I think my
parents always, beyond race, they always, I wouldn’t say and so much identified
with, but maybe that’s part of it. They felt such empathy for the underdog in
any situation, and it was clear who the underdog was in
that situation. And curiously enough, the expression of that in terms of his sense
of racial justice, was to work with the African-American Presbyterian church in
Tuskegee after he bought bought the Tuskegee News and to make it a sister
Church to his white church here, and of course it was Neil Davis who did so much
of the initial priming of Auburn to be ready for integration; he did not resist
it. He supported Brown v. Board when almost
no other newspaper in the state of Alabama did so. He worked incredibly hard
to make Auburn not go through what Mobile went through, what Birmingham went
through, what Selma went through. He was determined that was not going to happen
here and by George it didn’t happen here. If a simple word could, but we used
during Neil Davis’ time, he was liberal extreme liberal and was able to to stand
up and write and express his feeling of his ideas against many of the things
that we know today were not right in the South at that time. 1947 he becomes
president of the Alabama Press Association, that was unheard of. He was
the fourth southern journalist to be chosen as a Nieman Fellow to spend a
year and the most elite and surroundings at Harvard thinking about studying,
transformative journalism and the power he had, the power of a free press in a
democratic society. From that point on, Neil felt this huge sense of
responsibility, but I think the responsibility garnered honors from
outside, from outside Auburn, from outside Lee
County before Lee County realized what a significant person he was. A man who grew up in Auburn, African-American, several years ahead of
me in high school so of course I didn’t know him because the schools were
segregated, we then met when we were in Chapel Hill and he came there to be a
professor in the medical school, and he immediately knew who we were and talked
about what a difference my father had made to him growing up and
the members of the black community knowing that there was somebody in the
community who was standing up for them, and I think that let me see how many
people I was not aware of that were affected and encouraged by him. I’ve always
been amazed that some people are honored in their own time sometimes rather
superficially and then forgotten in the next generation. Neil’s career flipped
that. Neil won the admission to the University of Alabama Communications
Hall of Fame two years after he died, three years after he died he was
inducted into the Alabama newspaper Hall of Fame. In some sense, his fame outside
never translated during his own time to fame inside and then after he died, all
of a sudden we realized we had one of the premier journalists in America here
in Auburn publishing a weekly newspaper but influencing a community far beyond
anything that a weekly newspaper could have done because it was his life as
much as his journalism that imprinted Auburn

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