William L. Davis Jr., a retired construction company executive, decorated World War II combat veteran and founder of an Irish folk band that has been performing in the Baltimore-Washington area for more than three decades, died of Parkinson's disease Sunday at his Sykesville home. He was 84.
Mr. Davis was born and raised in Baltimore, the eldest of five children. His father was of Welsh descent and his mother an immigrant to Baltimore from Ireland's County Mayo.
"He began singing when he was a kid growing up in the old 10th Ward, and performing in skits and shows at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church," said son-in-law Michael D. Fadrowski of Westminster.
Mr. Davis attended Polytechnic Institute and enlisted in the Army in 1942. He volunteered for the 82nd Airborne Division and after completing jump training at Fort Benning, Ga., was assigned to the 504th Parachute Infantry. He fought in the African and Italian campaigns.
Mr. Davis lost his left eye in Italy, after a German hand grenade exploded nearby. He was sent to the military hospital at Valley Forge, Pa., and spent 155 days recuperating from his injuries before returning to active duty as a parachute school instructor at Fort Benning.
He attained the rank of sergeant, and his decorations included the Purple Heart, Bronze Star for "meritorious courage" and Combat Infantryman's Badge.
While at Fort Benning in the early days of the war, Mr. Davis became close friends with Gilmore L. "Bud" Smith of Waltham, Mass., also a member of the 82nd Airborne. They were reunited at the parachute school near the end of World War II.
"I asked him to come home to Waltham with me during furlough, and that's when he met my sister. He loved to sing, and we did a lot of singing in the local barrooms," Mr. Smith said.
In 1946, Mr. Davis was discharged from the Army and married Mr. Smith's sister, Arlene Smith.
He took a job that year as a field engineer for Consolidated Engineering Co. in Baltimore, where he remained until joining Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. as a construction superintendent in 1955.
He was promoted to general superintendent and worked on projects including the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, New York State Barge Canal, Tysons Corner Center in Virginia, The Galleria in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Mount Washington campus of United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co.
"He was a hard-nosed ex-paratrooper who knew his business and was very good at it. He had a tough job as superintendent but was ideally suited for it," said Chuck Irish, Whiting-Turner senior executive vice president.
After retiring in 1988, Mr. Davis founded Davis Construction Consultants, a business he operated until 1992.
His love of Celtic and Scottish ballads, old sea chanteys and drinking songs led Mr. Davis to establish Bill Davis and Sons with his three sons in 1972. He later changed the band's name to The Spalpeens, which in Gaelic means a "rogue or a man of little use."
They began performing in waterfront saloons in Baltimore during the early 1970s, and expanded to a troupe of seven that includes a son-in-law, a granddaughter and several unrelated musicians.
"Today Baltimore has 30 bands playing Irish music, but in the early 1970s no one was playing that kind of music. They were the first to ignite the Irish folk music revival, and were a mainstay at the Cat's Eye Pub, old McGinn's, now Mick O'Shea's, and the old Harp on Madison Street," said Kevin B. O'Connor, a former Baltimore County firefighter who is the lobbyist in Washington for the International Association of Fire Fighters.
"Bill put more enthusiasm, vigor and emotion into his music because he loved Ireland, and his music reflected that. And the band had so much fun when they were doing their music. You just couldn't help but tap your toes and clap your hands," Mr. O'Connor said.
"He was a perfectionist as a musician, and you knew right away who was in charge," said a son, Gregory B. Davis of New Windsor.
"I was at the Irish Festival Saturday when news came that Bill had died and there was such a sadness," said Dorsey Brown, a partner and co-owner of An Poitin Stil, an Irish restaurant in Timonium. "He was my headliner on St. Patrick's Day, and we'd have 2,000 people in a tent listening to him. The Spalpeens always brought the heart of Ireland to their music, and you could see it on the people's faces."
Even though Mr. Davis was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 13 years ago and turned over the band to eldest son William L. "Rocky" Davis III in 2003, he'd still come to performances, play his harmonica and sing a few numbers.
"Even though he was bent over and crippled, he could still sing," said son William. "Some of his favorite songs were `Take Me Home to Mayo,' `Minstrel Boy,' `A Soldier's Song,' and `The Outlawed Repere.'"
Mr. Davis was a communicant of St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, 12500 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today.
In addition to his wife and sons, survivors include his other son, Michael G. Davis of Catonsville; a daughter, Jeanne C. Fadrowski of Mount Airy; a brother, Thomas B. Davis of Salisbury; 17 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. A daughter, Janice Davis Soop, died in 1998.