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The man who inspired the LoveBolt...

William Edward Davis, Jr.

Was born black in the jim crow {p.n.c.} South in 1922 with a host of personal attributes that would have led him to a C suite or a governor’s mansion had he been born white.  Instead, he had to quit school at the age of ten to help put food on his family’s table during the Depression. He worked odd jobs for several years and began his first full-time job on August 31, 1938, his sixteenth birthday…

That morning Will walked to work from his neighborhood nearby. It was a little less than a mile and the route led him along the perimeter of the Cherokee Country Club golf course where he often caddied.  He walked along the back nine and made his way across Lyons View Drive to the newly constructed home of Elizabeth and Hal Mebane. The Mebane’s hired Will to help maintain their residence, a lovely red-brick Georgian situated on a bluff high above a horseshoe bend in the Tennessee river where, on a clear day, one could see Mount LeConte in the distance.


On that first day, Will may have seen this position simply as a steady job with a stellar view, and the Mebane’s may have seen Will simply as a promising employee.  But over the course of the next six decades Will, the Mebanes, and both of their extended families would come to forge a web of intensely close personal relationships that transcended race and class, crossing over into a realm of profound love, deep mutual respect, and many shared passions. Their lives came to intertwine so fundamentally that they absolutely became family to one another.


My name is Kitty Garner and I am part of that extended family. I was four years old when I looked up into Will’s sparkling eyes and saw his broad, warm smile for the first time, and I would have the great fortune to see him every weekday for the next fourteen years until I left for college.  Will surely would have been a central part of my life even if my parents had not divorced when I was seven. But the fact that my dad moved to California after the divorce created a sizable void in both my life and in my heart. I honestly do not know who I would be as a person today if Will had not been there for our family.  It is an impossible endeavor for me to express all of Will’s remarkable traits and the ways those qualities affected my upbringing, but here is a summary:


The steadfastness of his presence in our lives and the history he had with the home in which I grew up gave me a sense of rock-solid stability;


The love he poured out of his heart each and every day gave me a deep, unwavering understanding that I was truly loved for exactly who I was, without qualification;


His incredible sense of wonder and delight in the promise of each day fed my own innate curiosity;


The love he poured out of his heart each and every day gave me a deep, unwavering understanding that I was truly loved for exactly who I was, without qualification;


His perpetual state of gratitude made me aspire to make that stellar trait an organizing principle for my own life;


His extremely generous and kind spirit allowed him to make room in his heart for both my brother, Jimmy, and myself (Will and his lovely wife Mary already had seven children of their own, six of whom went on to graduate from college);


His close friendship with my strong, precious, wonderful mom, Libba, and the joy they shared daily as they gardened, cooked and talked together showed me how lines of race and class dissolve when we are together sharing our passions and our day to day lives.  {More than any other, their friendship served as a model for the social inclusion mission of LoveBolt.}

My love for Will and his family and the daily experiences we shared helped me understand at a very young age that there were no inherent differences between us via a vis race. Quite to the contrary — we had so much in common and enjoyed such a wide variety of shared interests that we would naturally have wanted to spend time together. The barriers that prevented that from occurring more easily were the product of racism, full stop.

Even though I knew race was not “real,” I was forced to see that racism was all TOO real. In Knoxville, Tennessee in the 70s and 80s, vestiges of the jim crow {p.n.c.} era surfaced with some frequency, and each time I heard a racial epithet or slur, a dagger stabbed my heart. I felt any racist comment or action was a threat directed personally at Will, and each time this happened I was filled with a combination of anger, anguish, and determination to help bring this horrific hegemony to an end.


Kitty Garner, August 2020