My father was a serious man, with a dry wit reserved mostly for those closest to him. He was a private person, and his death, because of the circumstances, was more public than anything he had ever done in his life.
Sam Davis Jr. died on Dec. 9, 2009, in a fire at his home in West Baltimore. It was a tragic and abrupt end to the life of a South Carolina sharecropper's son who came to Baltimore during the late 1950s and survived the turbulent 1960s to raise three children, send them all to college, purchase a half-dozen cars and a home.
With my graduation from college in 1983, my father became the first of his seven siblings to have a child graduate from college, the first college graduate ever in the Davis family.
Having worked at The Baltimore Sun for nearly 30 years, I found it surreal to open the newspaper the day after the fire to see the home my parents had worked during the same 30 years to purchase, a burned hulk of its old self, their charred belongings scattered about the lawn. Incidentally, the same photographer who took the fire picture had, some 10 years earlier, randomly encountered my dad at his job and taken his picture for a story for the Business page.
Also surreal was the intense media coverage that ensued. For about a week, the mayor's office and the Fire Department sparred over whether my father's death and my sister's critical injuries were at least partly caused by the rotating closures of fire stations to save money — the station five blocks from their home was closed that night — or by the lack of a working smoke detector in the home.
The first truck that responded from a station farther away initially went to the wrong location because a 911 dispatcher could not make out the address in the call from my sister. She was choking from smoke inhalation, which left her in respiratory distress and landed her in Shock Trauma for two weeks, in critical condition.
For the record, the home had two working smoke detectors, which alerted my mom and sister to the fire and probably saved their lives. In fact, my father told me to replace the battery in one of the smoke detectors about two weeks before the fire, which I did.
I was too despondent at his funeral to talk. Had I not been, I would have spoken of the courage my father showed in seeking a better life for his family, in moving from South Carolina, where good-paying jobs were scarce, to Maryland, with nothing but the promise of a job working with his older brother at the Chesapeake Paperboard Co. in Locust Point. He landed the job and stayed there for almost 40 years, first as a forklift operator and then as a supervisor.
My father loved his family and would do anything for us. He didn't finish elementary school, but he learned to read as an adult so he would be eligible for a promotion. He didn't help us with our homework, but he encouraged us to further our education after high school by agreeing to pay our car insurance while we were in college. He didn't handle the family budget, but he married wisely, choosing a woman he could trust to take care of the family finances — and, for the most part, he stayed out of her way.
He loved old Westerns, new cars and any sport. While I never saw him play a sport, he would race my brother, my sister and me home from the corner store on warm summer evenings after taking us to get ice cream. I asked him once if he ever played sports. He said he liked to play baseball but got into too many fights during the games.
Even before he could read, my father encouraged us to read every day by bringing home slightly damaged books from his job at the paper recycling plant. He would pick through the discarded books and paper products before they were destroyed. My parents probably never had to purchase school supplies, toilet paper or paper towels.
My father's habit of salvaging paper products planted the seeds in this newspaperman the day a stack of carbon paper came home. I hand-wrote a one-page newspaper on that carbon paper and distributed it to our neighbors. It was probably Baltimore's first real free daily.
Two of my fondest memories of my father involve receiving my first bike — it was green with a white banana-shaped seat — and my first car, a black 1973 Mercury Capri with a green top and a sunroof. He put the bike together, and he helped me choose and purchase the car.
My father was fiercely protective of his family. Though many days over the last few years his arthritis was so debilitating he had trouble walking or twisting open a bottle of water, he died trying to put out the fire that started in his bedroom. The last time my mother saw him alive, as she was escaping from the house, he was heading back into his room with a small basin of water trying to douse the flames. He could have survived if he had just left the house, which would've been the logical, and safest, thing for anyone to do — but not for my father. It was his nature to fight to protect his family.