It Feels Like Coming Home

Story by Mary Clark

As Dr. Larry Davis prepares to take over the reins as the newest chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College (UACCM) at Morrilton, he reflects on a childhood that laid the foundation for this moment in history.

The experience of growing up as an auto mechanic’s son carried a lot of weight when Davis was setting his academic goals and future career path. Davis’ father knew first-hand the importance of working in a technical trade, possessing skills that require both a practical mind and a savvy hands-on approach. While watching his father tinker around on cars as a vocation or for fun, Davis came to understand that the payoff from vocational-training could be rewarding both personally and professionally.

Although his hometown of Shawnee, Okla., was the location of two liberal arts colleges, St. Gregory’s University, a private Catholic university as well as the state’s first college, and Oklahoma Baptist University, an institution founded in 1910, Davis wound up attending East Central University in Ada, Okla., majoring in mathematics.

It was while working on his master’s degree in math at Oklahoma University and teaching freshman math classes there as a teaching assistant, he found his first love was in the education field. A year later, he combined his love for teaching math with his recognition of the importance of technical trades by going to work at the OSU Technical College in Okmulgee, Okla., teaching applied math as well as college-transfer courses.

As a youngster growing up in Shawnee, a town located on Interstate 40 just 30 miles east of Oklahoma City, Davis observed that his parents were “big-time Arkansas fans.” Davis said they took all of their vacations throughout the years to various parts of Arkansas and relished the natural beauty and friendliness of the state. Davis has noticed both Oklahomans and Arkansans exude a warm, embracing attitude that seems to run across state lines and run border to border in each state.

His parents had eventually planned to retire in Arkansas but didn’t get the opportunity before his father passed away in 1997. However, the immense love of a state by his parents would in due course lead Davis to plant his roots in the land of opportunity, a nickname for Arkansas that would ring true in not only a philosophical but realistic way.

One of the greatest life-changing events of Davis’ life came when he and his brother were both diagnosed with polio, the viral infectious disease that was one of the most dreaded and feared illnesses for children growing up in the early to mid-fifties.

Prior to Jonas Salk’s critical development of a vaccine, polio left thousands of children and adults paralyzed, and Davis’ brother was not spared the disease’s devastating effects. Although his brother never walked again after he contracted the disease, Davis was luckier, with his symptoms eventually going away. He was left with noticeable irregular chest curvature and an enlarged sternum, but was able to walk again after the symptoms disappeared. However, the magnitude of the illness had a profound impact on his family. Davis said circumstances of that nature slant one’s perspective on disability issues and the way people handle obstacles.

He stated, “My brother never complained onceaboutthefatelifehadhandedhim.He simply used his experiences to help others, eventually working for the Governor’s Disability Commission in Oklahoma and later for the Oklahoma Employment Office in Shawnee for many years until his death two weeks before Christmas in 2000.”

Davis recounted once complaining to his mother about having to carry around his brother everywhere he went, struggling to physically lift both the young man and his cumbersome wheelchair into his car. Davis reflected his mother looked him in the eye and asked simply, “Well, would you like to trade places with him?” The answer was obvious and stuck with Davis to this day. Davis stated his brother was a “great guy and my hero.”

Davis said his mother had always wanted to go to college, but never had the opportunity to do so. The era in which she grew up reflected a time when most college students were from affluent families with the resources to cover tuition, room and board, and other expenses before the emergence of the grants and loans available today.

Although his mother couldn’t achieve that dream for herself, she strongly encouraged her son to continue his education beyond high school. Davis said it was more like a command than a request; he was expected to take that next step into post-secondary education upon receiving his high school diploma.

Davis set out to East Central State College in Ada, Okla., with strong family support and an eye on the future. Located 45 miles south of Shawnee, Ada was close enough for comfort but far enough away to allow for a little independence.

Davis said from 1967 to 1973 he had a 1957 Chevy that his father, the auto mechanic, promised to keep running for him providing reliable transportation back and forth to work and to school.

“My parents told me I would have to get a job and earn my tuition money, but I wouldn’t have to worry about the logistics of getting to my classes,” said Davis, adding when he tells that story now, people remark about how “cool” that must have been to have a ’57 Chevy. However, Davis said with a smile, “Back then it was just a 13-year old car.”

Davis completed his Bachelor of Science degree with a major in mathematics and minors in history and English in May 1971. After earning his undergraduate degree, Davis went on to complete 18 graduate hours of math courses from the University of Oklahoma in Norman from 1971 to 1972. He taught as a graduate assistant in the Mathematics Department at Norman during this time, In 1972-73 he taught 8th through 12th grade math at Weleetka Public Schools in Weleetka, Okla. In 1973, he began his career at OSU-Okmulgee in Okmulgee, Okla., where he would stay for 31 years, rising through the ranks from a math instructor to department head, and eventually, division chair.

In May 1980, Davis completed his Master of Science degree in occupational and adult education at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater where his thesis topic was the integration of computer- assisted instruction into the classroom at OSU-Tech. In May 1988, Davis earned his doctorate of education from OSU-Stillwater, realizing his and his parents’ dream of reaching the pinnacle of academics.

Davis got a first-hand opportunity to work in an institution which focused on technical education at OSU-Okmulgee (now Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology). As the technical branch of the Oklahoma State University System, the campus is known for its hands-on technical training, world-class equipment, and unique partnerships with industry. This technical aspect of education sparked Davis’ interest due to his family’s background and also gave him the opportunity to delve into several areas new to him: formulating business and industry partnerships and fundraising in the form of grants and development.

Davis served as a division chair at OSU for six years, honing his skills as an administrator, leader, and manager supervising faculty in both the Arts and Sciences and the General Studies and Business Technologies Divisions. In 2004, he saw an advertisement from Arkansas State University (ASU)-Newport seeking a vice chancellor for academic affairs. Davis applied for the job and was selected for the position that February. He said that when he moved to Newport, he “didn’t know a soul. But, the people were so friendly, and literally adopted me as one of their own.”

Davis is responsible for the development, coordination, and implementation of ASU- Newport’s instructional programs, both technical and university-transfer. He has supervised the division/department chairs for general education and occupational programs, criminal justice and prison programs, business and transportation programs, and distance education for the past six years. He has also provided oversight to the admissions and records office, library/ learning resource center, and business outreach/continuing education programs.

During his tenure at Newport, the college has added several new programs, including the state’s only high voltage lineman program and a state-of-the-art outdoor underground lab. Davis was instrumental in advancing the college’s health programs, creating a surgical tech program that will begin this fall, and working as part of a chief academic officers’ group that developed an eight-college consortium LPN to RN bridge program. His involvement with the Arkansas Delta Training and Education Consortium (ADTEC) group in the areas of manufacturing and renewable energy is another of his biggest achievements.

He will be leaving Newport with a legacy of six years of success that can be seen in new programs, new partnerships, and relationships developed with employees and students. One of his most special memories is making a contribution to ASU- Newport’s Student Community Center, which allowed his late mother’s name to be placed on the donor plaque in memoriam. He followed that donation with a gift to the college’s transportation building, thereby honoring his father by setting his name in stone on that donor wall. He said the permanent listing of their names on the buildings is a “great tribute” and he thinks it would definitely please them both.

As Davis prepares for his move to Morrilton, he is excited about the possibility of creating relationships with businesses and industry in the region to foster new job creation and economic development. He believes community involvement is an essential part of developing those relationships. He said, “I am involved because I believe the college and the community have to be partners for both to be successful.” Davis continued, “More than anything, it’s about the students and a commitment to each individual achieving his or her goals.” His mantra has always been, “It’s not about us, it’s about them.”

Davis is headed to the area with optimism, enthusiasm, and energy, excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. He is also thrilled about the fact that he will be several hours closer to his daughter, Sara, who still resides in Ada. Sara and her husband have already planned an October trip to Morrilton to visit dad in his new home. His son, Ryan, lives in Los Angeles where he works for Warner Entertainment, but Davis said he will keep encouraging him to come to Arkansas and spend a little time in the state that has always held a special place in his family’s heart.  

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