Dick Davis, 1922 – 2012

04/19/2012

Richard Davis, a former Nicasio homeowner and financial advisor who played a pivotal role in the formation of Marin Agricultural Land Trust, died March 25 at age 89. Davis’s work as a financier earned him the reverence of colleagues and many hobbyist investors, who saw in him the unwavering integrity and regard for clients’ needs that could and should epitomize the financial industry. “Dick always did the right thing; he was incredibly honest and he always made sure his clients’ interests were paramount,” Lance Varellas, a portfolio manager and former associate, said. His impeccable character was generously rewarded: in 1969 Davis was elected chairman of the California Group, Investment Bankers Association of America; 11 years later he was named Investment Banker of the Year by the San Francisco Bond Club.

Davis’s investment acumen became an incredible asset to MALT in the early 80’s, when the organization’s financial backing was still growing. He was a member of the inaugural board, became a perennial patron and, with his wife, Ginny, hosted gatherings in his home. “The fundraising we did back then was really critical to developing the staff that could carry out the functions of MALT, so Dick was important in setting the stage for the organization to be well received and viewed as viable by the community,” MALT co-founder Phyllis Faber said. “Dick was a wonderful person; he was thoughtful, had a great sense of humor and could always make complicated financial issues clear. He just created this ever wonderful, rich world around him.”

Richard Mercer Davis was born on November 23, 1922, to George W., a piano salesman turned investor, and Ruth, a concert pianist. The family owned a modest two-story in San Francisco, which George, who had a penchant for Persian textiles, filled with ornate rugs. Davis enjoyed the outdoors and grew especially fond of the hills and forests surrounding Pinecrest Lake, where the family vacationed most summers.

After attending the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied business administration and was active in the ROTC, Davis enlisted in the Navy. He served as a gunnery officer and as a lieutenant, junior grade, and was stationed in the Pacific for three years, until 1946. He never talked much about the experience, his daughter Laurie said, but he did say that, from the deck of his ship, the U.S.S. Stevens, he once saw a kamikaze crash into the flank of another ship.

Davis earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1948 and returned to California to join his father’s firm, Davis, Skaggs & Company. The following year he met Ginny at a party in San Francisco; the two courted briefly and were married at the Stanford Memorial Church in 1950. Not long after, Ginny gave birth to their four daughters, Alison, Martha, Laurie and Robbie.

Davis was good at what he did, in part because he worked tirelessly at it, but also because he was fascinated by the elevated degree of strategy that it took to succeed in the world of finance. “Dad loved it all,” Laurie said. “Even when his health continued to fail in the last couple of months, we would still get on the computer and go look at the Dow Jones. He just loved the excitement of finding something really good that you could purchase cheap and hang onto for a long time and let grow.” Davis became a general partner at Davis, Skaggs & Company in 1958, and in 1964 he was named CEO and chairman. He oversaw the expansion of the company, first with the opening of a branch in Menlo Park, and later with offices in Sacramento and Larkspur. His mantra through it all, Varellas recalled, was, “Buy quality, stick with it, and when it goes down buy more of it.”

For all his professional achievements, Davis remained intent on prioritizing his life at home. He worked long hours, but spent most if not all of his spare time in the company of Ginny and the girls, drawing alongside them and teaching them to chop wood and live simply. “What I loved most was that he was someone we could count on to give good advice,” Laurie said. “His responses were always measured and thoughtful; I felt that I could go to him about anything.”

Alison agreed. “Dad didn’t rattle easily and was always very supportive of us, even when we made some pretty unconventional choices—Laurie went off to be a ballet dancer for a while; I went to China to teach English,” she said. “Not only was he supportive of me, I remember the year I was gone he took a class in Chinese. It’s not like he got very good at it, but the effort he gave made a big difference to me.”

Davis eschewed the stereotypes of affluent investors, the luxury cars and ornate houses. He drove a rusted 1941 Ford pickup, rarely ventured beyond the mountains and lakes of his native state, and, in general, preferred rusticity. “He was the opposite of the normal financial planner, who maybe lives in Healdsburg and jets off to a mansion on some island for vacations,” Mike Lipskin, a neighbor, said.

“Dad was an investment banker, but I don’t think of him that way,” Allison said. “I think of him more in terms of jeans and cowboy boots.”

Over time, Davis’s broad historical interests narrowed into a fascination for California’s 19th century immigrant culture. He devoured books and scholarly research on the subject, and led the family on several horse-packing trips into the high county in search of settler artifacts like old wagon wheels and dining utensils. “I think he really admired the spirit of what it took—the gut and the grit—to make those journeys,” Allison said. He sketched many of the items he unearthed and donated nearly all of them to the Tuolumne County Historical Society. 

Davis and Ginny moved to Nicasio in the late 70’s. Davis built a small workshop and installed a blacksmith’s furnace on the property, and quickly became an integral member of the community. “He was a guy that brought us all together,” Bill Harrison, a neighbor, said. “Dick represented a lot of the community spirit and connectedness of Nicasio in the earlier days and all the way right up to his death.”

Davis was also an active member and supporter of the Nicasio Valley Volunteer Fire Department, and volunteered on the Old Rancheria Road Committee for several years. He and Ginny were avid supporters of Halleck Creek Riding Club and the Nicasio School Foundation, to which they donated an old school bell. In 2000 they relocated to Villa Marin in San Rafael, but frequently visited Laurie on weekends. Davis, who had been diagnosed with late-onset Parkinson’s disease in the late 90’s, retired from the firm a year later, though he kept a desk there for informal visits, which he made on occasion.

 

Dick Davis is survived by his wife, Ginny; daughters Alison, Martha, Laurie and Robbie; grandchildren Matthew and Anna; and siblings Donald W. Davis and Nancy Davis Fouquet. Donations to a charity of choice or Marin Community Foundation’s George W. Davis Fund can be made. Those wishing to celebrate Dick’s life can contact wordsout@sbcglobal.net for information. Friends may share tributes at dick-davis.memory-of.com.