Barrie Davis gained plenty of attention for his heroics as an ace fighter pilot in World War II.
But shining brighter than any military medal was the warm smile that seemed imprinted on his face. A smooth, comforting voice completed his laid-back demeanor.
“I never saw him get mad,” said his son, Mike Davis. “He always had a smile on his face, and that’s what everyone says they remember about him, whether times were tough or not.”
At age 90, Barrie Davis passed away Tuesday at his home in Zebulon after years of battling a chronic respiratory disease. He was a lifelong resident of the Town of Friendly People, and a person that gave validity to that title.
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“He was a true Southern gentleman and a very accomplished person in his life,” said Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny, who is Davis’ nephew by marriage. “He was such a wonderful person and so diverse and was not only well-spoken, but a great listener. He inspired people to be involved.”
Davis was born Dec. 22, 1923, in Lenoir County to the Rev. and Mrs. Theo B. Davis. The following year, the family moved to Zebulon, where Davis went on to graduate from Wakelon High School in 1940.
He enrolled at Wake Forest University after graduating but dropped out to begin a tour of duty with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Davis enlisted as a commissioned second lieutenant in June 1942. He went on to earn the title of “Flying Ace” after recording six confirmed aerial victories.
For his service with the 12th and 15th Air Forces in Africa and Italy in World War II, Davis was awarded the European Theater of Operations Medal with five campaign stars, the Air Medal with 13 clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and the Silver Star.
Davis attended Command Forces Staff College and the U.S. Army War College from 1971-74 before receiving an honorable discharge in 1976. He was a life member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and of the American Fighter Aces Association.
When released from active duty in October 1945, Davis became a partner with other family members in Theo Davis Sons, the Zebulon-based company now called Theo Davis Printing. He remained in the partnership until 1997.
He was a 12-year member of the Printing Industry of the Carolinas board of directors, serving as president of that organization and as chairman of the Printing Industry of the Carolinas Foundation for four years. He was editor of The Zebulon Record for 12 years.
Mike Davis, now the CEO of Theo Davis Printing, recalls how past employees liked to work for his father because of his pleasant nature.
The No. 1 thing Davis imparted on his son, and many others, was the importance of serving the community.
“Everything I’ve done was with an idea you have to put family first, but then comes community,” Mike Davis said. “I’ve followed in his steps in several ways, but I’ve yet to figure out how he did all that he did.”
‘Mr. National Guard’
In April 1949, Barrie Davis was appointed captain of field artillery in the N.C. Army National Guard.
He piloted the acquisition of a National Guard unit in Zebulon and left the Air Force Reserve to serve as battery commander of the unit for five years. In total, Davis served 28 years with the Guard before retiring as a master Army aviator, fixed wing and rotary wing, with a rank of colonel of artillery.
In 2008, on his 84th birthday, he was presented with North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine award by Lt. Gen. William E. Ingram Jr., former director of the N.C. National Guard.
For Ingram, Davis and his brother, Ferd, were icons as he started his service with the Guard in 1970.
“Back then, the commander of the unit was normally a person in the community and Barrie Davis was certainly that,” Ingram said. “He had a vested interest in the unit. He was probably Mr. National Guard in the community in the time he was there and did a lot to encourage people to serve the country and led by example. Just a great role model.
“I was honored to present him that award when I was adjutant general.”
The Zebulon Rotary Club enjoyed Davis’ 68 years of membership. He joined the club in January 1946 and served three terms as its president over the years.
Davis was also Rotary district governor for 1983-84 and served on the Rotary International board of directors for 1993-94. He was district chairman of a PolioPlus campaign that raised more than $800,000 to help rid the world of polio.
As a Zebulon Rotarian, he helped provide and equip the building for the Zebulon Community Library, in a joint effort with the Zebulon Woman’s Club.
“If you just look at all the things he did over the years – both in Zebulon, in North Carolina, his work with the National Guard – his whole life has been about service,” said Ken Morgan, a former Rotary International director. “The more you read about him, the more you see he was a servant-leader before servant-leader was a popular term.”
Over the 30 years he knew him through Rotary, Morgan learned that Davis wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty even after taking on a suit-and-tie role in the organization.
“He was involved in Rotary at the international level, but also participated in picking up trash when the club was involved in Adopt-A-Highway,” Morgan said. “There was never a thing he wouldn’t do as service through the club. He lived that servant leadership his whole 90 years.”
Davis was the charter treasurer of Zebulon Industrial Properties, which ushered companies such as Devil Dog, Omark and ITW Hi-Cone to town.
He also helped organize the Zebulon Chamber of Commerce and served three terms on its board of directors. The chamber later honored Davis as Zebulon’s Citizen of the Year for 2001.
He was a member of the Capital Area Workforce Development Board, serving as chairman for four years. He also held titles of vice chairman of the Better Business Bureau, consul commander of Woodmen of the World and trustee for the N.C. State University Design Foundation. He served on the advisory committee for the Department of Business at Louisburg College.
Davis also served as treasurer for the N.C. Association of Workforce Development Boards and was a member of the East Wake Business Alliance, a group that works to improve educational opportunities for students in eastern Wake County.
The list goes on.
Davis helped organize the Cultural Enrichment, Leadership Motivation, Economic Development and Family Improvement organization, which provides a summer day camp for underprivileged children in Zebulon. And he was the charter chairman of the Zebulon Community Relations Council and a tutor and mentor for eight years at Zebulon Middle School.
He was also the director of Communities in Schools of Wake County for five years. He was honored by CIS in 1998 with “The Barrie Davis Walk-the-Talk Award,” which is given annually to an outstanding volunteer worker.
Davis was a member of the Zebulon Masonic Lodge and Zebulon Shrine Club and Amran Temple. He also spent three years as a local Scoutmaster.
At Zebulon Baptist Church, he was active as a Sunday School teacher and vice chairman of the sanctuary building committee, and as a member of the building committee and strategic planning committee.
A memorial service for Davis will be held Saturday at 3 p.m. at Zebulon Baptist and a reception will follow, fittingly, at the Zebulon Rotary Club.
Davis arranged months ago for his body to be donated for research at the UNC School of Medicine.
“Even in death, he’s contributing,” Matheny said.