Like many young men of his era, when Robert “Bob” Davis heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he wanted to join the military. But there was a hitch – Mr. Davis was a track star at the University of Pittsburgh, on a full scholarship and captain of the track team and cross-country team.
The U.S. Navy recruiter told him he couldn’t leave the university.
“He told me, ‘You can’t quit school now. Your coach needs you, your team needs you. Besides, they would kill me if I let you join,’” Mr. Davis recalled with a laugh.
So Mr. Davis graduated in 1943 with a bachelor’s degree in business and the Gold Shoe Award, thanks to his effort in track and cross-country.
Five days later, he went off to serve in the U.S. Navy.
Mr. Davis, 92, served in World War II and was on Normandy’s Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. In hindsight, his dedication to serving his country may have been a foreshadowing of how Mr. Davis would continue to serve others.
Mr. Davis was recently honored by the University of Pittsburgh as a 2013 Legacy Laureate. The program honors alumni for their professional and personal achievements and contributions to their communities.
The delay before he went off to serve his country enabled Mr. Davis do more than finish his degree. He also met his wife, Phyllis, during that time.
While at Pitt, Mr. Davis had told his coach he needed a job and soon found himself sweeping the steps at the Cathedral of Learning every day. He worked his way up to operating the elevator and met a young freshman who caught his eye.
“After giving her a couple of rides, I asked her out,” he recalled.
The pair kept in touch while he was in the service and married shortly after the war. They lived in Greensburg, where they raised their four children, then moved to Squirrel Hill three years ago.
When he returned to his hometown after the war, Mr. Davis began working at his father’s corner grocery store.
“I was ahead of my time. I began marketing and expanding our merchandise,” he said.
Mr. Davis expanded the small store into the Davis Supermarket chain. Eight years ago, he sold the chain and retired.
Mr. Davis served on various community groups, including as president of the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce; chairman of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Authority; president and board chairman of the former Westmoreland County Society for Crippled Children and Adults; and chairman of the Greensburg-Jeannette-Irwin Committee for Employment of the Handicapped.
Mr. Davis was also named to President Lyndon Johnson’s Committee for the Employment of the Handicapped for his dedication to hiring disabled people.
“No matter who, if I was asked to do something, I never refused,” Mr. Davis said.
Mr. Davis also has served with other nonprofit organizations and received numerous awards and honors. In addition, he served on the board at Seton Hill University and the University of Pittsburgh Greensburg.
Sharon Smith, president of Pitt-Greensburg, nominated him for the Legacy Award. Ms. Smith met Mr. Davis through his work with both the university and the community and has known him for seven years.
“Bob is just absolutely the most delightful person," she said. "He lives his beliefs – he doesn’t do something because he wants the honor or recognition, but he does it because it is the right thing to do.”
Ms. Smith mentioned Mr. Davis’ work with Mental Health America and his special concern for veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t realize he had served in World War II and D-Day until I heard him talking about it. He just wants to serve others,” she said.
Ms. Smith said Mr. Davis is “above and beyond” what the university hopes for in its graduates and he is an excellent role model for students.
“What he has done for the community is amazing, and he looks at everything that has happened to him as a gift. He has done well and he has done good — he is an example that you can do both,” Ms. Smith said.
The 2013 Legacy Laureate Award from the university holds a special place in Mr. Davis’ heart.
“This award meant everything — that was my school and I am so honored. I feel like I’ve been blessed and I thank God for a wonderful life — I’ve just tried to be honest and reliable,” he said.
He has achieved that goal, said his daughter, Carole Davis.
“I heard a quote that said ‘look for the helper.' That is my dad, a helper,” she said.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.