June 18, 2008

Sturtevant's Funeral Home
Portsmouth, VA


Ralph Edwin Davis was born January 10, 1929, the year the Great Depression began, in a small town in western Maryland called Pompey Smash, on Vale Summit. He was the son of John Theodore Davis the First and Dorothy Fatkin Davis. He was the fourth of eight children, and was married for 59 years to my mother, Verna Griffith Davis, who was the sixth of eleven children. Talk about your middle child syndrome!

Growing up in a large family in a time when the whole country was impoverished, you can imagine that hard work and thriftiness were Dad’s core values. I want to show you that his other values were honesty, doing the right thing, and love and devotion to his wife and his family. But first, let me elaborate the hard work:

There was a story Dad told us about how his ancestors first came to western Maryland. In the 1800’s, Charles Fatkin, an ancestor of Dad’s mother, lived with his wife and five children in Nova Scotia. Times were hard, and the family saved money and sold everything they had so they could book passage on a ship to Maryland, where they would get work mining coal.

The ship wrecked, and the mother and four of the children perished at sea. Charles Fatkin was able to save one son, Thomas Fatkin, by letting the little boy cling to his back while he swam and floated until they could be rescued. The shipping company took them back to Nova Scotia, where the two of them worked and saved up again until they could finally make the trip to western Maryland.

Young Thomas worked in the coal mines for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. In his spare time, he read and educated himself to the extent that he was able to become a school teacher. And he was eventually elected to the Maryland State Legislature.

Such is the tradition that Dad was born into, and he himself was always a hard worker. He used to get into trouble with his grandfather, John PR Davis, because little Ralph would not leave alone his grandfather’s tools. But Dad got some tools of his own, and he built a little shop out behind his house. My grandmother told me that every night Dad would not come into the house until she flipped the switch and turned off his lights.

I hope you saw the picture of Dad and his younger brother David sitting on an airplane that Dad made when he was about 11 or 12 years old. He made many ingenious things in his shop, and through a twist of fate Dad got his first full-time job when a service tech from Sears Roebuck went to Dad’s house by mistake. The tech had been sent to an incorrect address, Dad’s address, to repair an automatic washing machine. Dad’s family did not have an automatic washing machine, but when the tech came to the front door, nobody answered his knock, so he went around back, and found Dad in his shop. He was impressed with what he saw, and suggested Dad apply for a job as a service tech at Sears. Which he got. And what a good hire Dad was for them. The problem the service tech had been called out on involved the washing machine walking across the floor from vibration. This was an endemic problem with the washers they were selling then, and in his first month on the job Dad invented a bolt-down solution that Sears pushed out to the entire country.

So you see that Dad was not only a hard worker, he was a man of vision. And one vision that he had for his entire life was his dream of flying. You saw the picture of one of Dad’s early airplanes. He never had the resources to be trained as a pilot, but he did join the Civil Air Patrol as a boy. When Cris and I were little, Dad would take our family to Norfolk Airport to watch the planes take off and land, and in later years Dad and I together took a course in aviation ground school. As a young man, he built gliders that he would fly on the rising air currents in the mountains of western Maryland, and in the early 50’s after he moved to Virginia he began building radio controlled model planes. One of his larger models was called The RC Special, which he built from plans he found in a magazine in 1954. When he opened a model airplane hobby shop in the early 70’s, he built an updated version of the same design. He was able to track down Bill Winters, the original designer of the plane, and Winters was so excited that after all those years, his creation still had a following. Mr Winters traveled to Virginia to meet Dad. The two of them took the original RC Special that Dad had built in the early 50’s, as well as his new and improved model, out to the field and flew them together. It was a proud and happy meeting for Dad. It was during this time that he became the founding president of Hampton Roads Radio Control Club.

I should tell you how Mom and Dad wound up in Virginia. Dad was graduated from Beall High School in Frostburg Maryland in 1947, ranked 10th in his class, and Mom graduated from Beall in 1948, ranked 5th. They were married in 1949. Times were tough in western Maryland. Sears Roebuck had two service techs, and to cut costs they needed to lay off one of them. Dad suggested that instead they should each work part time, and to supplement his reduced income Dad worked on a farm where he was paid not in money, but in eggs. It was in this time that Dad’s uncle Carson Hestor, who ran a radio sales and service shop in Norfolk, called my dad. “Ralph” he said, “I think this new thing called television is going to be big, but I need somebody to fix the things when they break down.” Uncle Carson hired both my father, and his brother Ted Davis, to work in the shop. Dad took a correspondence course in television repair from the National Radio Institute, and began a career that spanned half a century and culminated in his founding his own television business that fed several families and served thousands of customers for 30 years.

Throughout this time, Dad did not really have a normal concept of leisure time. So many of you introduced yourselves to me last night as his customers, but I want you to know, you were truly his friends. For his entire life he spent every waking hour working, creating, and building. He was a masterful machinist on his metal lathe, he built fabulous train layouts with electronic block controls that were decades ahead of their time. I remember a railroad turntable he made. So many of the commercially available turntables didn’t align well with the tracks when they stopped, but Dad’s turntable had a little solenoid-activated indexing lever that made it latch into perfect alignment every time.

I myself have been driving a car since I was four years old, because Dad made go-carts for me and for my sister Cris, as well as a garden tractor. These were no ordinary go-karts, mine had a bright yellow body, and a reverse gear! I think it was Cris’s car that had trailors, because when we’d go out to run them, kids would come from all around to get a ride. But we were to never let anybody else drive…that was Dad’s way.

Dad was an excellent carpenter, he made this awesome playhouse for Cris. It had storm windows, fiberglass insulation, it was at least as good as the house we lived in. Dad taught himself to weld, both arc welding and acetylene welding. I don’t know if you remember the name of Joe Weatherly, a Norfolk NASCAR racer in the 50’s and 60’s, but Dad did some custom machine work for one of Weatherly’s race cars.

In the early 80’s, Dad began to study computer programming. He eventually ran his entire business with software he produced himself. And when I say that he created the software, I mean he understood the systems to the lowest level. He did not buy software to operate the barcode readers, he studied the barcode standards and the electronics of the hardware, and he wrote his own code to operate them.

So you see that Dad was a master builder, but one thing he would never have done is to write a speech like this. He was so very practical, not given to BS, not given to much speculation or idle chat. You couldn’t even lure him into it, so there are some topics about which you have to do some detective work to figure out where he stood. One of these questions is, Where did he stand with God? I will tell you what I know:

In 1962, we had the Cuban Missle Crisis, and like always, there was no idle talk about the situation, just quiet tension. But I remember the morning when Dad got the morning paper from the porch, and the headline read KRUSCHEV BLINKS. Dad did not give credit to President Kennedy. Dad said “Somebody up there is looking out for us.”

Dad defined his religion not with a Bible verse, but rather with a quotation from Ben Franklin: “God helps those who help themselves.” But there is a Bible verse that exemplifies the way Dad lived his life. It’s something that Jesus said: “For what ever you have done to the least of these here, you have also done to me.” I remember when, at Christmas time, Dad would give me a list of some of our less fortunate customers, and tell me to load the truck with TVs we hadn’t sold and go give one to each person on the list, and tell them Merry Christmas.

I remember when he caught a kid shoplifting from his store. He didn’t prosecute, he took the boy aside and lectured him, and tried to set him on the right path, the same way he did with me and my sister Cris when we were growing up. Likewise, once he found that an employee had been skimming from the cash register. He took her aside, and found out her family was on hard times. And he found extra work so she could do some overtime and help catch up on her bills.

More than a few times, I heard Dad complain about a bill that somebody had charged him for service, but he didn’t complain in the ordinary way. He complained that the bill was too LOW for the work that had been done, and he insisted on paying more. There’s your golden rule in action.

You who knew him know that he was a perfectionist. I remember when he was hanging the sheetrock for the ceiling of a garage he built. The edges of two adjacent pieces didn’t quite line up perfectly, there was about a quarter-inch difference. “I’m going to have to take down this whole row and redo it” he said. “But why?” I asked. “You’re going to cover it with acoustic tile, nobody will ever know about that quarter-inch gap.” “But *I* would know” he said.

And that’s the bottom line of Dad’s quiet, private religion: Nothing swept under the rug. You do what is right, whether anybody is looking or not, because in the end, you have to be able to face yourself. When Dad was in his final days, and he knew the end was near, he did regret not having sold down the inventory of his store, but he did not express any other regrets, because for his whole life he had kept all the edges lined up perfectly, no matter how many times he had to do it over to get it right.

But I have a big regret on his behalf. As good as he was, as hard as he worked, he deserved every good thing he wished for. But he never achieved his lifetime dream of flying. But maybe I’m wrong. I touched my father’s face Sunday morning. It looked just like my precious Daddy, but I could tell by the feel of his face, he was not there. Maybe now at last he can fly. Please join me now in my final wishes for Ralph Edwin Davis: Please repeat and respond with me when I say:

Fly far Ralph.

Fly free Ralph.

Fly forever Ralph.
Fly forever Ralph.
Fly forever, Daddy.




At graveside:

As a boy, Ralph loved to watch the steam engines pull coal trains through the mountains of western Maryland. As his last train now disappears around a bend, we pray that this is not Ralph’s final destination, but rather just a brief whistle stop on his way to a better place.