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The Ultimate Homecoming

Editor's Note: The inauguration of Roderick J. McDavis as the 20th president of Ohio University will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, in the Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium. For more information on the inaugural activities planned for the University community or to watch the live broadcast of the ceremony, visit www.ohio.edu/inauguration/.

Alumnus Roderick McDavis returns in president's role

By Mary Alice Casey

Mabel McDavis knew the value of a good education.

Her father graduated from Tuskegee Institute in the late 1800s, a time when precious few African-Americans could even consider college. He went on to build a small library on their property in Owensboro, Ky.

Five-year-old Rod McDavisIn 1977, Mabel earned the third of her three college degrees, an accomplishment that at the time made her the oldest person ever to graduate from the University of Florida's counselor education program. Her schooling made possible a distinguished three-decade teaching career.

She pushed her three sons to pursue knowledge, sending them to Catholic schools because -- while she and her husband, Joe, were practicing Baptists -- she thought they'd get a better education there than in public schools.

Mabel's youngest, Roderick J. McDavis, was named president of Ohio University, his alma mater, shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday, June 3, 2004. Family members have just one regret: Mabel wasn't there.

"She wanted to see that day," says grandson Tony. "But I know she's watching from overhead and saying, 'That's my son. That's my baby son.'"

Mabel McDavis must have believed her son would one day lead a major university, just as he had talked about and worked toward his entire career. Everyone else in Rod McDavis' life did.

Growing up in Dayton

The McDavis family in 1955There was balance in Joe and Mabel McDavis' household. Their boys -- William Hicks (A. Rahim Majeed), Mabel's son from a previous marriage, and fraternal twins Frederick and Roderick (the second of the two to enter the world) -- were expected to divide their attentions reasonably among schoolwork, play, reading and television. The family lived in predominantly black neighborhoods on Dayton's west side, with each of their three moves representing a step up for the McDavises. Most family trips were to Chicago to see relatives. Joe McDavis was a sports fan, an interest he shared with Rod and his brothers. Joe, Mabel and their sons often headed to Cleveland for Browns games or to Cincinnati to see the Dodgers play the Reds.

"Even if the score was 10-1 in favor of the other team, Rod wouldn't want to leave," Joe McDavis recalls of their trips to Cincinnati's Crosley Field. "I wanted to go because I had to get up for work the next morning."

A graduate of Wilberforce University, where he majored in business, Joe McDavis owned a hamburger shop when the boys were young. When he was unable to secure a bank loan to expand the business or open a second one, he closed the shop and took a job with the U.S. Postal Service and eventually with Dayton Public Schools. He was a visiting teacher, meaning he went to the homes of truant youngsters to convince them to go back to school.

Mabel McDavis held a bachelor's degree in education from Kentucky State University and later earned a master's from the University of Dayton. She worked in an orphanage before teaching English and coordinating a dropout prevention program for Dayton schools.

"I knew from observing them that I wanted to be in a people-oriented occupation," Rod McDavis says. "My earliest memories are of wanting to go into business." His mother's teaching career intrigued him, though. "I saw how she was changing lives."

The idea of becoming a university president occurred to McDavis incredibly early in life. As a young newspaper carrier, he noticed that articles about colleges or universities generally quoted their presidents. Later, as a drummer in the Chaminade High School band, he marched each fall in the University of Dayton homecoming parade. He found the campus environment energizing.

At age 15, as a high school sophomore, he asked fellow percussionist James Moses if he could hitch a ride home after practice from Moses' mom. Also in the car that afternoon was his friend's 16-year-old sister, Deborah.

"I always say I did not choose Rod; God chose him for me," says Deborah McDavis, who describes hearing a voice in her head that said this young man would be her future husband. "We did have, I call it, a very divine beginning." Their first date, on July 11, 1964, was spent at the Moses home.

"We did a whole lot of talking about grown-up things," Deborah remembers. "On that first date, we were talking and he asked, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I said I was going to be an English teacher. He said, 'I'm going to be the president of a university.' That was 1964. That didn't even mean much to us then."

Deborah was drawn by her new boyfriend's quiet reserve. "My father always said, 'Still waters run deep.' I think about that when I think of Rod."

"I was shy," McDavis acknowledges. "I think I was what a lot of people would call a late bloomer."

McDavis performs the long jump at a high school track meet.Deborah and Rod went to different high schools, she to Paul Lawrence Dunbar and he to Chaminade with one of her five brothers. In addition to being a four-year band member, McDavis was on the track team his junior and senior years. He ran the 100- and 220-yard dashes and the anchor leg of the 880-yard relay and did the long jump. He broke a school record in the 100 his senior year, turning in a time of 9.9 seconds. "One of my goals was to break 10 seconds, and one time I did," he says matter-of-factly.

Goals. They're a recurring theme in Rod McDavis' life. And the truth is, he approaches few of them matter-of-factly.

His relay team finished fifth in the state his senior season, sparking the interest of Ohio State's track coach. A scholarship offer got McDavis' attention, but a visit led him to question how successful he'd be on the large Columbus campus. His high school track coach suggested he look into Ohio University.

The Ultimate Homecoming | The Athens Years | A Family Man | The Academician | Leading His Alma Mater | Setting the agenda

Mary Alice Casey is editor of Ohio Today. Joan Slattery Wall, who served until recently as assistant editor, also contributed to this story, which appears in the fall issue of Ohio Today.

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