Dr. Davis recognized as storied career comes to a close

Photo courtesy of WKU. 

Jonah Phillips

When Dr. Bill Davis was honored as Professor Emeritus of Economics last week at the Board of Regents quarterly meeting, few people knew the ending of a story was being written that began in the summer of 1961.

Davis, a native of Louisville, has serviced the University for the better part of 40 years, and will officially have completed his transition into retirement this fall semester—the first semester in decades that Davis will not be teaching at WKU.

For those of you crunching numbers trying to figure out how roughly 40 years of service as a professor equates to a story beginning in 1961, Dr. Davis’ story on the Hill predates his time as a professor.

“In the summer of 1961 I was teed up to go to Bellarmine College, but about two weeks before school was supposed to start, I had some friends that went to Western and they persuaded me to come down and just look around,” Davis said. “I decided to switch at the last minute, and when I broke the news to my parents—much to my surprise because I was only 17 years old—they let me do it. In the fall of 1961 I was a freshman here at Western.”

After jumping ship last minute to become a Hilltopper, Davis made his way down to Bowling Green with a slightly different set of core interests as a 17 year old than he would even four years later.

“I came here interested in history and political science, but as a junior I stumbled on an economics class,” Davis said. “ But by the time I had stumbled upon it, it was way too late even for me to get a minor, so I got my undergraduate degree in history and political science (in 1965) and I went on to graduate school at the University of Kentucky with a master’s degree in Economics.”

During his time at UK, Davis began working in the University’s commerce school for the Bureau of Business Research and began his Ph.D. in economics.

“While I was there, the head of the economics department from Western would visit by the name of Wayne Dobson,” Davis said. “He convinced me to come down to Western simply because they were shorthanded at the time.”

Davis looked at this as a temporary job, but took up the offer anyway and headed back to Bowling Green.

“He asked me to come down and just teach for a year and then move on and continue to do my own thing,” Davis said. “Well that was 1970 and I never left—the rest is history.”

Towards the beginning of his tenure on the Hill, Davis completed his Ph.D. and at a point contemplated leaving the university.

“When I came here I certainly didn’t plan on being here for 35…40 years, that thought never crossed my mind,” Davis said. “I got here and kind of took roots.”

Divs recalls having interviews at South Dakota University, a school in Florida, and a school in St. Charles, Louisiana to name a few.

“Looking back it wasn’t a mistake, not pursuing any of those opportunities,” Davis said. “I was always happy to be (at Western).  I don’t have any regrets at all in that way.”

As the months turned to years and the years turn to decades, Davis slowly engrained himself into the culture of the economics department—a culture Davis believes is unique to the econ department specifically.

“The academic life is a great life, and the economics department is one of the most intellectually satisfying departments to be a part of for a long time,” Davis said. “Even today the culture of the department is very friendly.  Sometimes there is tension within and between departments—colleges don’t always get along—but the environment in the economics department, I am happy to say, was never like that.”

In the early 2000s Davis undertook a project within the economics department that would completely redefine economic education at WKU—he rebuilt a master’s program that years before had been dismantled during reaccreditation.

“We had a master’s program at one time and it was dropped in one of the episodes of reaccreditation—it was a tactical move on the part of the university,” Davis said. “Well a few years later I took it upon myself to restart that program.  After a few years passed the rules had changed, so it was quite a bit of work to get the master’s program reapproved.  But we got it accomplished and we are proud of our program and the success it has at placing graduate students.”

The master’s program was reestablished in 2005, and it was through this opportunity Davis had to rebuild the program, that he realized the opportunities WKU extends to students.

“I have been to countless graduations, and the president will typically ask the students to raise their hands or stand up if they happen to be the first members in their family to go to college,” Davis said. “Still to this day over a third of them stand up.

“Western has been described as an opportunity institution and it is true—for a lot of students that come here it is a transformative experience,” Davis said. “You can get a really good education here, in some instances, the best education in the country.”

After nearly 40 years of service as an educator and completely rebuilding the master’s program from the ground up, the thought of retirement slowly began edging its way into Davis’ mind.

“When I was thinking about retirement, I wanted to make sure I didn’t stay too long,” Davis said. “Any profession you are in, the longer you are in it, it becomes more difficult. Economists call it human capital—it is your store of knowledge—and it winds down unless you return to school on a regular basis.

“That was one consideration but another is that your interests change—you get to a point where ‘I have done all the damage I can do’ and you are ready to move on,” Davis said.

As the clock officially winds down on Davis’ career as a professor, he reminisced of the first time he thought about becoming an educator.

“I remember as a freshman I took a history course under Carlton Jackson… it was probably his first year.  I can remember vividly that it was the first time the thought of being a professor went through my head,” Davis said. “He was good—he was excellent. He was one of those kinds of teachers that leave a lasting impression on you—he was infectious.”

Fast-forward that memory from 1961, and Davis is a professor with Emeritus status at a University that without him could potentially still be lacking a master’s program in economics.

“Personally it is no doubt an achievement,” Davis said of being named Professor Emeritus. “From the perspective of the University it is a way of identifying people and rewarding them for their good service over a long period of time.”

With a fall semester that includes no classes at WKU, Davis will begin to settle into his life as a retiree—a life he has already started.

“My father left me a small farm about 80 miles from here so now I am kind of becoming a farmer,” Davis said. “That is one of my major distractions right now.

“I am the kind of person where my vocation and my avocations have always been separate,” Davis said. “I have known people where the university was both their vocation and avocation, and they were bundled together in such a way that retirement is kind of terrifying.”

Davis said he knows for retirees that the important thing is to stay occupied and do things you enjoy doing, and added that this won’t be a problem for him.