C. Ernest Davis’ legacy of family and education
by Melanie Loon
photography by Kristina Bugante
A portrait of former La Verne College President C. Ernest Davis lies on the kitchen table between his two remaining children, Chuck, 92, and Virginia, 85. Together, in the Hillcrest home Chuck shares with his wife Mildred, the two recount a heritage that their father embodied, of family and service that ultimately saved the University from horrible financial troubles in the years following the Great Depression. Richly hued history books, thinning hardcover ledgers, loose papers and one golden frame are strewn about the table’s round wooden surface. Today, this is the place where history is retold, but more than 60 years ago, it was over broken bread in kitchens up the West Coast where the University was saved from financial ruin, through the generosity of Church of the Brethren families and churches.
That money helped bridge the gap. In the 1930s, the University was $82,000 in debt, an exorbitant amount then, leaving professors often paid with IOUs instead of paychecks. Some were more willing than others to continue teaching on partial salaries. Holding the body and soul of the College together was Davis, president from 1938 to 1948. In The University of La Verne, A Centennial History: 1891-1991, former history professors Herbert W. Hogan and Gladdys E. Muir write that Davis was a great orator and a serious student, whose sense of humor “frequently stood him in good stead.” After graduating from La Verne Academy in 1913, Davis earned his Bachelor of Arts from La Verne College 10 years later. Hogan and Muir note him to be the first student to graduate magna cum laude from LVC. His master’s degree came from the College of the Pacific, and so began his career in education where he led as president of Mount Morris College and later taught religion and worked as field secretary at McPherson College in Kansas.
Even previously before graduating, as a student teacher, President Davis traveled on behalf of his alma mater, to build support for education. Following the tenure of Ellis M. Studebaker, Davis was the “unanimous vote” of the Board of Trustees to lead La Verne College. He went on to serve La Verne College from 1938 to 1948.
The LVC Board of Trustees asked, “Who knows every Brethren in the San Joaquin Valley? And who had been in their homes and talked to them and could still do that?” Virginia explains. “The College took the same person who demonstrated ability at 29, as president at 45 years old.” Hogan and Muir add, “Now, in 1938, 15 years after his graduation, he was returning to his alma mater as president. He had five children, two of whom would be in college. He knew very well the problems of youth, their hopes and dreams.”
Preaching up and down the West Coast in Churches of the Brethren, including the nine Churches in California, C. Ernest Davis advocated for students at La Verne College. In Southern California, he spent his presidency speaking to the Lincoln School PTA, the Lions Club, the Fremont Jr. High School Fathers and Sons’ Banquet in Pomona, and many other places, garnering financial support for his students and recruiting new ones. This was accomplished in just the first two months of his presidency, as recorded in a diary he kept while leading the college. “Wherever Daddy went, he had friends,” Virginia, the youngest of his five children, muses. As an alumnus of Lordsburg Academy, C. Ernest grew up with the Church of the Brethren, migrating from the Midwest to Oregon, eventually settling in Southern California where the Church planted. In 1910, 17-year-old Davis was the first of his family to attend college, “and since then 65 relatives of the Davis/Heisel family have attended Lordsburg Academy/La Verne College/University of La Verne,” according to Virginia’s notes. She explains, “Daddy had a unique background in that he was part of this flux of people coming in—so they dispersed all over California and Oregon—so they [the Churches of the Brethren] became the target for new students and money for the college.” Her notes add, “In less than a year, he convinced L.M. Davenport to deed over a lot of property (mostly warehouses and a skating rink) to form a trust from which the college received $300 a month for the support of the Dept. of Philosophy and Religion.”
Chuck, his third son, has noticeable resemblance to his father. “Sometimes I think that too when I look in the mirror,” he chuckles. From behind thick glasses, he peers at the gold-framed black and white portrait of his father and says, “He had a confident look about him” as his fingers trace down a map of the Church of the Brethren’s migration along the West Coast in “Settlement of the Brethren on the Pacific Slope.” Also authored by Muir, the yellowed first page of Settlement is signed in cursive, “To Charles E. Davis, pioneer, and son of a pioneer. Merry Christmas. Sincerely yours, Gladdys E. Muir. December 25, 1943.”
Hogan wrote, “During his second year, the President was able to announce that the balance of the mortgage indebtedness on the main campus and building ($26,500) had been paid off, largely through the sale of a farm given to the College by Adam Wenger of Pasadena.” Just as the college began to stand on more solid ground financially and grow in enrollment, the draft of World War II shrunk classes as men entered the military or Civilian Public Service camps. Davis felt a sense of legacy in his veins that was shared by his classmates and the families he preached to while on business for church and education. But it was the family affair that kept loyalty burning amongst the Brethren churches, as they showed hospitality and pledged funds for what they felt was their school, the education that they wanted for their children. One agreement was a pledge to donate to the College $1 for each member of the congregation.
Even more than a group effort of the Churches and Davis family, the names are countless of those who not only sacrificed in their careers to give to the school, but those who even in retirement served and supported students individually. Davis’ loyalty trickled down to his students, some of whom worked as staff for decades.
Herbert Hogan, co-author of the Centennial History, taught history but later became dean and vice president. A few more familiar names came up in table conversation: Dwight Hanawalt was director of athletics and became dean of students, and Richard Landis went on to become president of the Del Monte Corporation, never forgetting his University, becoming a major donor and long-tine member of the Board of Trustees.
The personal, familial investment Davis revived kept him away from home for much of the time. At the beginning of his presidency, Virginia, the baby of the family, was in fourth grade. All but the eldest child of C. Ernest Davis and Grace Heisel Davis (Philip), pursued a degree in English.
For much of while they dated, Virginia’s father took the train to La Verne Academy and would take the stop close to Grace’s home, sending letters in between, which Grace kept for decades. Chuck and his wife Mildred, class of 1946, are a La Verne College love story; they met on the first day of school. Mildred was named 1984 Alumna of the Year. She went on to work as director of alumni relations at the University until retiring.
As a passionate family historian, Virginia carries the legacy that built the University of La Verne even in the way she describes her family’s life and mission. “The wheels were greased—all I had to do was fall in line,” she shrugs without hesitation. Her mission was her family’s mission—the sustaining and growing of a good education. Virginia continues serving full-time as a church organist.
For the churches, for her father and for his children, “the College” was not just about the name of an educational institution but a family beyond bloodlines that built and kept building it.
In 1898, La Verne Academy boasted just 16 graduates and seven teachers. In Gladdys E. Muir’s centennial history of the University, a black and white portrait frames them solemnly as they pose in front of a backdrop that reads, “TO BE, RATHER THAN TO APPEAR.”
C. Ernest Davis’ 1938 Diary Entries
Fri., April 29: I received a letter from Edgar Rothrock saying that I had been the unanimous choice of the trustees of La Verne College for President to succeed Ellis M. Studebaker, who is resigning after fifteen years of service. Salary would be $2400 per year, a furnished house, and tuition for the children. [Philip would be a senior in college, Barbara a college freshman, Charles a high school sophomore, Rodney in the 6th grade, and Virginia in the 4th grade]. I fear I could not measure up to the task. La Verne has some very weighty problems.
Wed., May 25: Turned in my resignation at the college [McPherson] this morning and wired Edgar Rothrock my acceptance of the La Verne call.
Mon., Sept. 5: The Dist. Conf. Business Session was held today. The idea of the churches raising a sum equal to $1 per member per year for the college was approved.
Sat., Sept. 24: Our enrollment has reached 144 or 145. We withdrew from the S. Calif. Intercollegiate Athletic Conference today. We will play out our basketball and baseball schedule but not football as we have too few men to do it. We will play an independent schedule using freshmen in the team.
Mon., Nov. 7: We lost the Redlands game 12 to 0.
Fri., Nov. 11: Armistice Day. Twenty years after the world war finds America again being urged into military preparedness.
Mon., Nov. 21: In my mind Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany, has signed his own death warrant in his action ordering the name of Jehovah to be removed from all Protestant churches. This in addition to his treatment of the Jews will eventually prove his undoing.
Wed., Nov. 30: Finished getting out a letter to our pastors asking for a Christmas offering for the college.
Thurs., Dec. 1: Had to pay our teachers but half their salaries today.
Sat., Dec. 31: 1938 closes with the world in a great muddle. Spain is in a civil war. Japan fighting China—Invasion of China. Hitler & Mussolini messing up Europe. Squandermania seems to be the word describing the current U.S.A.
Wed., July 19 : Borrowed $100 at the bank today to live on.