Decorated war veteran, longtime local newsman, and community leader Rayford Davis died Monday night after an extended illness. He was 89.
As a young man, Mr. Davis was thrown into the field of battle during World War II. He received a Silver Star for his bravery in overthrowing a machine gun nest, and a Purple Heart for wounds he suffered during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Following war, Mr. Davis settled into a career as a newsman and worked for 40 years in the profession, including 38 with the Southern Standard.
After the birth of his handicapped daughter, Jan, he tirelessly championed for more programs and services for people with disabilities. It was thanks in large part to his efforts the decision was made to build Gribble Memorial on N. Spring Street.
“I never knew anybody as dedicated to helping people as Rayford,” said longtime community volunteer Nelma Justin. “He dedicated his life to improving the lives of special needs children and was so helpful to me in my work to get CHEER Mental Health started here. He had contacts with people all over the state.”
John Bragg knew Mr. Davis since their school days at City Grammar School, which is now the Blue Building.
“Since the fifth or sixth grade, he’s been one of my dearest friends,” said Bragg. “He was a great man and a great asset to the city of McMinnville. We joined the service at about the same time. He went to Europe and I went to the Pacific and we both made it back home. We remained close all these years.”
A graduate of Central High School in 1943, Mr. Davis entered the Army and served in combat with the Second Infantry Division.
In 1944, as a 21-year-old soldier, Davis and two fellow soldiers won a duel with the odds heavily against them facing Nazi machine gun fire. The three soldiers were able to sneak up on the machine gun entrenchment and surprise the crew. A battle resulted in six deaths and the capture of the machine gun nest, which had been firing on Allied troops for one day.
Because of the voluntary deed of attacking the machine gun crew, Davis was awarded the Silver Star for “gallantry in action.”
He was still embedded in the heart of battle later that year when he was twice wounded in the leg on the beach at Normandy during the historic D-Day invasion. Mr. Davis received a Purple Heart for those injuries.
Upon his return from war, he married Hannah Green in November 1949 and three years later became the father of daughter, Jan, who was handicapped at birth.
Mr. Davis began working with local school officials to establish a special school for mentally and physically handicapped residents of Warren County with the first being Maple Grove School.
Thanks largely to his tireless efforts, Martin Gribble was inspired to build Gribble Memorial. A small house has previously been at that site and Davis was among a group that held monthly meetings there concerning services available to disabled residents.
Opportunities, Ltd., was established for the adult handicapped as a place where they could learn a working trade. Then, the Jan Davis Center was founded at the old clinic building on Main Street that served as the community’s primary source of medical care. Patients at that facility were later sent to Pacesetters when it established a presence in Warren County.
Mr. Davis was perhaps best known in the community for his writing in the Southern Standard. He started with the newspaper in 1946 shortly after leaving active military service.
Mr. Davis began his career at the Standard as a sports reporter and later became editor. He earned praise and widespread readership for his front-page column named ReePortin’ that was published every Wednesday. Readers frequently sent him their thoughts and tidbits hoping they would be included in his weekly column.
“Rayford’s passing sadly leaves our community with one fewer of what has been accurately described as America’s greatest generation, and he more than proved that through his service to our country and as a citizen of this community,” said Standard publisher Patricia Zechman. “He was one of my first bosses at the Standard, and he firmly let an anxious teenager on her first real job know there was, ‘a right way, a wrong way and there’s my way, and we do things my way!’ I quickly came to realize Rayford’s way was the right way, and he was uncompromising in fulfilling his work-related responsibilities. Warren County is a far better place for having had a citizen of Rayford’s caliber and character as its native son.”
In 1978, Mr. Davis resigned from the Standard and threw his hat in the political ring to run for register of deeds. He finished third in a seven-man race.
He soon returned to reporting as he took a job as editor of the Warren County News. Two years later, in 1980, the parent company of the Southern Standard, Morris Multimedia of Savannah, Ga., bought the Warren County News. Mr. Davis returned to the Standard as associate editor.
Mr. Davis retired from the Standard on July 31, 1988, although that did not put an end to his publishing career. He continued to work as editor of the VFW’s quarterly newsletter for the next decade.
During his professional career, he was active in veterans affairs, both with the VFW and American Legion. In 2006, he was honored for 60 years of continuous service to the American Legion and had 66 years of service at the time of his death.
“He said what he believed in. He was a very genuine guy,” said Wayne Wolford, American Legion 208 commander, noting Davis was long affiliated with American Legion Post 173 before joining Post 208 about 15 years ago. “He was a mentor to me, always laughing, always joking, always with a story to tell.”
Among his many accolades, Mr. Davis was named Jaycees Young Man of the Year in 1958 and was the first recipient of the MTSU-based Joe Nunley Award in 1990. The award is given to a World War II veteran who is also known for service to his community and will be given as long as World War II veterans are alive to receive it.