By Nick Schinker
Growing up in Tuskegee, Ala., Russell Davis already was exhibiting a number of the traits that later would serve him well and help chart his course into adulthood.
JoAnne Lofton recalls that her younger cousin, even at an early age, never shied from taking control of a task or project—and doling out the duties necessary to achieve success. Back then, Davis could be counted on to rise to the occasion, be it to fill a prominent role in a Christmas play or to act as the driving force in a family or school project. "Whenever a situation came up, I don't care what was involved, Russ would take over," she recalls. "He was very much a take-charge kind of person."
Today, Lofton is assistant dean of UNO’s College of Public Affairs and Community Service. And the young lad with the penchant for taking control and giving orders now is Lt. Gen. Russell Clark Davis, first black chief of the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va.
Davis chuckles at the youthful image of him recalled by his cousin. "She's right," he says. "I can't stand disorganization. People would always say, 'Okay, Russell, just go ahead and do it.' They knew I would make sure it got done.
"That quality probably has a bit to do with what I'm doing now."
As chief, the 1963 UNO graduate is the senior uniformed officer responsible for formulating and coordinating the policies and programs affecting 468,000 U.S. Army and Air National Guard personnel serving in the United States and around the world. "People think the National Guard is nothing more than their neighbor next door or the armory down the street,” he says. “We have 360,000 [soldiers] serving in the Army National Guard and 108,000 in the Air National Guard. That's a good-sized force; second only to the 480,000 serving in the U.S. Army. In addition to combat missions, the National Guard is very much involved in peacekeeping, humanitarian efforts. We're at work around the world."
Davis was born in 1938 in Tuskegee, the third son of Winfred and Marcus Davis. The Alabama city is home to the renowned Tuskegee Institute (now university), established in 1881 in part through the efforts of Lewis Adams, Davis' great-great-grandfather. Booker T. Washington served as the college's first principal and lived for a time with Adams, who was on the school's board of commissioners.
"Growing up in Tuskegee, we were well aware of the now-famous black airmen training there. While my mother primarily taught school, she also packed parachutes for the airmen. My dad served first as the assistant contracting officer, then as purchasing officer." Eventually, all three Davis boys entered the Air Force (Marcus now retired as a major, Matthew as a Lt. Col).
Russell became an aviation cadet in 1958, completing his undergraduate pilot training at Graham Air Base in Florida and Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1960. Later that year he was assigned as a bomber pilot to the 344th Bomber Squadron stationed at Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska. He served there until his release from active duty in 1965. During that time he took advantage of the on-base night classes provided by UNO.
He says the bachelor's degree in general education he received in 1963 provided valuable career options. "My degree from UNO got me in law school," he says, "even though I only got a C in business law." Upon his release from active duty, he joined the Iowa Air National Guard. "I remember the dean's office saying that they remembered me, in particular, because of my audacity. They said, 'He gets a C and thinks he can make it through law school?'"
He did, receiving his juris doctor degree in law in 1969.
With the country divided over Vietnam, military life in the 1960s was difficult —more so for a blacks in the military. "There were many pressures of the times. People would always come up and question how I could be in the military and not receive my full rights. I recall in particular that I reached the age of 24 before I was allowed to vote. That didn't set well with me personally.
"The atmosphere in Lincoln was not particularly good early on. I think there were three sections of town where blacks lived, if you lived off-base. Buying a house was not an option for most folks. I recall it had changed quite a bit by the time I left in '65."
There were instances of discrimination within the military, as well. But they could be overcome, Davis says. "You just had to be better qualified than the competition."
That was no problem for Davis. Rated as a command pilot, he has more than 4,700 flight hours in aircraft ranging from the B-47 ("Sitting nuclear alert in Europe for the big war that never came.") to the F-16 fighter. He has received many awards and decorations, including the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster and the Distinguished Service Medal.
With the Air National Guard in Des Moines he steadily rose through the ranks, serving as fighter interceptor pilot, flight commander, air operations staff officer and deputy commander of operations. He left Iowa in 1979 to serve as deputy chief of manpower and personnel at the Air National Guard Support Center, Andrews Air Force Base. In 1980 he was named executive to the chief, National Guard Bureau in Washington. In 1991 he was named commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard. He served as vice chief of the National Guard Bureau from 1995 until 1998, when he was appointed by the president as chief of the National Guard Bureau. Davis was promoted to brigadier general in 1982, to major general in 1990 and to lieutenant general in 1998.
"Of course, the whole family is proud," says UNO’s Lofton. "It's always been known that our family didn't care what you did in life, as long as you became the best. Russ has done just that."
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