Fred E. Davis, the founding president of State Fair Community College, died Monday morning at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City. He served as president from 1967 to 1984.
Davis, 88, lived in Clinton with his wife Margie. Arrangements are pending at McLaughlin Funeral Chapel.
SFCC President Dr. Joanna Anderson ordered flags at all SFCC campuses to be flown at half-staff in honor and memory of the college’s first president.
“Fred saw the possibilities of what a community college could do for the residents and students of Pettis and Benton counties and the surrounding region,” Anderson said in a news release. “He and Margie loved students and worked tirelessly to improve the lives of those they served. Our prayers and sympathy go out to all those who were impacted by this remarkable man.”
Davis was not originally the selection committee’s first choice for president back in 1967, and as one of the committee members, he suggested several names for the job, said former president Dr. Steve Poort.
“Then chair Bill Hopkins and the board became convinced after talking with the candidates that Fred was better than the candidates he was proposing,” Poort said. “He fit like a glove.”
Davis had experience with community colleges, as he served for five years as director of junior colleges for the state of Missouri, assisting in the formation of eight other Missouri junior colleges before being named president of SFCC. He also encouraged the Sedalia Jaycees to pursue creating a junior college district in the area when they traveled to the State Board of Education in the mid-1960s. His first day on the job at SFCC was Dec. 1, 1967, and he had to make do with no buildings and a small staff.
He was quoted in an SFCC news release as saying, “That day in December 1967, when I came to work, I had three books I’d brought with me, a cardboard box, a telephone, and three borrowed folding chairs. You can’t start with much less than that.”
“There was a twinkle in those blue eyes that was a spark of life that saw the best in everyone,” said Poort, who was the fifth person hired at SFCC, and served as the dean of academic affairs. “He had a sense of humor, a heart of warmth. It was a tough time getting started in such a short period of time. In 60 days we made a college out of a pasture. All of us were on our hands and knees putting together tables, chairs, anything we could do to help.”
SFCC soon grew to a campus consisting of one building, 404 students and 18 faculty members when it officially opened Sept. 16, 1968.
When the college first opened, the student body consisted of mostly women and non-traditional students. Founding faculty member and former Daum Museum director Doug Freed was only 23 when he was hired as the art instructor. He said his classes had mostly female students, whom he said “waited for years for the opportunity to go to college and were thrilled when it opened.”
Davis was known for knowing every student’s name and greeting students whenever he saw them, something both Poort and Freed remembered about him.
“He was a father figure to all the students. He knew their names, took an interest in the student body,” Freed said. “That’s my fondest memory of him. Just walking the halls and greeting the students. He was a people person, real true people person.”
“He knew all students by their first name; there was tremendous camaraderie,” Poort said. “There’s no other word I could use to describe it. He was one of a kind.”
That focus on students was seen in all of Davis’ work, and his personal life. Freed said that SFCC was “like a big family.” Davis and his wife hosted a Christmas party every year and invited both faculty and students to the open house.
“The biggest single impact (by Davis) is students were the reason the college existed,” Poort said. “It was always that way with him. The decisions were based on how does it affect students, how does it better their lives and the opportunities we make for them? That was the common denominator for decisions.”
Davis oversaw many important events while at SFCC, including the construction of a student union building and the Charles E. Yeater Learning Center, the college’s first accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the purchase of an additional 113 acres, and construction of the Career and Technology Center.
The idea for the college’s mascot, the Roadrunner, even came from a discussion around the Davis family’s kitchen table. Suggested as a joke, the idea quickly caught on.
After retiring in 1984 Davis remained involved in community colleges and served as the first president of Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield in the first few months of its founding in 1990.
One of Davis’ biggest dreams was to have an activity center on campus. SFCC’s multipurpose center opened in October 2001, and in July 2004 the college honored Davis by naming the building the Fred E. Davis Multipurpose Center.
“He was an outgoing, warm individual,” Freed said. “He was a social individual. I think he was personable, perfect to be that first president. He helped build bridges between two communities (Benton and Pettis counties). The big thing is that without that relationship the college would’ve never grown and wouldn’t have amounted to anything.”
Davis remained a vital member of the SFCC family, often visiting the Sedalia and Clinton campuses and attending events. In November 2010 he was named member emeritus of the SFCC Foundation.
“I kind of adopted him as a dad,” Poort said. “I don’t know if he was aware of it or not, but I couldn’t have made a better pick. He’s just a wonderful guy.”