Supplied image courtesy of the Wilmington Railroad Museum
Champion McDowell Davis, circa 1957
Champion McDowell Davis’ name is etched in Wilmington’s history for his work running the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, but it also lives on in a charitable foundation that supports nursing home care and other services for older residents.
And now, his name will be added to Wilmington’s Walk of Fame. Davis, known as "Champ," will be honored
Oct. 14 with a star on the special site near the Cotton Exchange downtown.
"He’s certainly achieved enough to deserve it," his great-nephew, Robert Darden Jr., said during a recent telephone interview. "He was a major factor in the railroad industry."
Davis, who passed away in 1975, worked about 64 years for the Atlantic Coast Line, starting out as a messenger boy and eventually rising up from the ranks to become president.
Born near Hickory, N.C., in 1879, Davis started working for the railway in 1893 when it had a different name, said Mark Koenig, executive director of the Wilmington Railroad Museum.
He became president of the railroad company in 1942, and while he had a home in Wilmington, he spent much of his time on a private railroad car that functioned as a rolling headquarters.
"Railroading was his life," Koenig said. "He spent an awful lot of time as an executive out on the railroad, going up and down the railroad tracks in his own office car."
Darden, who lives in Morehead City, N.C., recalled accompanying Davis on a railroad trip from Rocky Mount, N.C., to Miami when Darden was about 14.
As Davis’ car stopped at different superintendents’ offices along the way and officials boarded the car, Davis taught Darden an early lesson on the importance of remembering people’s names.
"He would introduce me and I was expected to disappear," Darden, now 83, said. "And later on he would grill me. He certainly was an extremely talented manager. He was progressive in the sense of moving the railroad ahead. He wasn’t afraid to innovate, but at the same time he was very much a traditionalist in terms of family, politics."
Davis, a lifelong bachelor, was devoted to his sister and Darden’s grandmother, Elizabeth Davis Darden, and to her children and grandchildren. Darden usually spent his summers with his grandmother at her home in Wilmington, and Davis would visit for dinner most Sundays.
Davis was a paradox, Darden said. While he never had children, he liked to be around them. During his later years Davis kept a coffee table covered with candies, cookies and other sweets, which the younger generations of his family enjoyed.
"When you first saw him and became aware of the fact he was childless and never married, you might have expected W.C. Fields," Darden said. "But Champ really did have genuine affection for children and was interested in them."
In fact, Davis even paid for Darden, Darden’s sister and their cousin to go to college.
"But he was not hesitant about letting us know what his views were," Darden explained.
"He gave me an education that opened doors everywhere and I’m eternally grateful to him for that."
Davis was also a supporter throughout the community. In addition to being a fixture at Wilmington’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, Davis also held health care for older people as a priority. After he retired in 1957, Davis started the Champion McDowell Davis Charitable Foundation to fund and support a nursing home in Wilmington.
"His passion was the railroad," said Dr. Thomas Sinclair of Wilmington, Davis’ physician. "But as he grew older … he began (to) wonder about what type of a legacy he wanted to leave, like most people would."
Davis donated land from his family’s Porters Neck peanut plantation to the foundation for the nursing home, originally named for his mother, Cornelia Nixon Davis. It opened in 1966.
The nonprofit facility, now called the Davis Community, has since grown to provide an assisted living facility called Champions, a physicians group facility and pharmacy, and a new rehabilitation and wellness pavilion. CEO Charles Long said the Davis Community is licensed for 348 residents, and it has about 400 employees.
"He was just a great asset to this community, a great philanthropist," Long said of Davis, who left most of his assets in a trust through the foundation to give back to the community. "He had great insight in setting up the remainder trust so it would continue to do good for people."
"He was one of a kind," Darden added. "There were not many people around like Champ Davis."
The nonprofit partnership Celebrate Wilmington! began the Walk of Fame in 1997 to honor those who have lived in the area and earned great recognition for their work. Past inductees include film producer Frank Capra Jr., folk artist Minnie Evans and southern rock musician Charlie Daniels. For more information, visit www.celebratewilmington.org.