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Thursday, 24 March 2016 08:05

Berne Davis: In Memoriam Featured

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Berne Davis, a pillar of the community in Lee County who donated millions of dollars to various charities in her lifetime, passed away this past Monday at the age of 102. Berne Davis, a pillar of the community in Lee County who donated millions of dollars to various charities in her lifetime, passed away this past Monday at the age of 102. Photo Courtesy of Jim Griffith

 

 Few have had an impact on Lee County like Berne Davis, who passed away this past Monday at the age of 102, just days after her birthday. A patron of the arts throughout Lee County, and a tireless promoter of culture throughout the area, Berne has had an impact on the lives of the countless people she interacted with in her century of life.

She donated millions to institutions ranging from Florida Gulf Coast University, to the Uncommon Friends Foundation, to the Art Center in downtown Fort Myers that bears the name of her and her late husband Sidney, a banker and later the owner of a local men’s clothing shop.

Her generosity was an extension of her gentle spirit, and those that were fortunate to know her personally remember just how kind and giving she was in all aspects of her life.

“Back in the 90s, then-Mayor (of Fort Myers Bruce) Grady asked me to serve on the Edison Ford Board,” Fran Myers –chair of the Beach Kids Foundation and owner of the Red Coconut RV Park - said, recalling her first time meeting Davis. “I was like ‘why would you want me? That’s all Fort Myers people.’ Grady said I was chosen because of my background with tourism, which was something they needed.”

“I think I might have been the first person outside of the City of Fort Myers who ever served on that Board,” Myers continued. “When I got there, I felt like an outsider. At the meeting, there were maybe 12 to 15 people on the board, and I sat by myself. The first person to come over and welcome me and telling me that she loved having me there was Berne Davis.”

For the first year after that initial meeting, Myers stated that she would sit right next to Davis at every meeting. “She made me feel like I was a part of Fort Myers, and that they wanted me here.”

A friendship blossomed from that initial meeting, and led to the two of them interacting often through the intervening years, and included the Myers helping Davis indulge in one of her great loves.

“Tom (Myers) used to grow coconut palms in our back yard,” Myers said. “Berne loved palm trees, so she always wanted to plant more in her yard by the river. After our trees would get about three feet tall, we’d haul down the palm trees to her, and she would plant them herself.”

“She was a master gardener, and her yard was the most beautiful yard you had ever seen,” Myers said. “And most of the stuff in her garden, she did herself. She loved the outdoors, and she loved people.”

“Despite our age difference, we always remained good friends since that first time we met,” Myers said. “She was always good at making people feel comfortable, and always welcomed me with open arms. At social events, she’d seek me out and sit next to me, because she knew I was the outsider, coming from (Fort Myers) Beach.”

Davis’s generous nature led her to be involved in numerous charities and groups throughout the area. “She did more for Uncommon Friends than anybody else, outside of Jim and Ellie Newton,” Myers stated. “She never missed a board meeting for 30 years.”

But as much love as Davis had for everyone she met, it shone especially bright for her late husband, Sidney, who she was with until his passing in 1986.

“I met Sidney before he passed away, when he had his men’s store in downtown Fort Myers,” Myers recalled, meeting him when she went in there to buy Tom some clothes. “Who Berne and Sidney reminded me of was President Reagan and his wife, Nancy. The two of them had a major love affair with one another. For Berne, everything was about Sidney. And for Sidney, everything was about Berne. They were a great, great couple.”

Sam Galloway - of Sam Galloway Ford - knew, and was very good friends with, Davis for 47 years. “When I was a young man, Berne was the most gorgeous woman in Southwest Florida. She was a beautiful lady until the day she died.”

“I first met her on Captiva Island, when I was out eating dinner,” Galloway said. “I had known Sidney from before. We had a brief conversation that night, but it worked into a long, wonderful friendship. She was a great, great lady, and she will be missed.”

“She was very involved in things that she felt would help the community, and she worked hard to make this a better place to live, and she even went one step further than that: she wanted to make this area beautiful. She was crazy about flowers and gardening. She put in tremendous amounts of money towards the Edison & Ford home and the gardens, and she helped with the renovation of it. She was just involved in so many projects. It just seems like Berne was a part of everything I ever did.”

“Berne and I were very close,” Galloway said, telling a story of making a short movie with Berne as they went to lunch in his 1928 Ford Model A Station Wagon. “We went down to the Edison home and through some of the gardens, and she told me how they were planted, and where things were originally. We went out to where Mrs. Edison called the Moonlight Gardens.”

“We sat out by the river, and I had the chance to have a sandwich with her,” Galloway recalled. “We were both in period costumes, having a little spoof that day. She had a remarkable sense of humor, and I had chance to learn more about Mrs. Edison. Mr. Edison seems to get all the credit, but Mrs. Edison had to be doing something right to keep the old man going.”

Galloway remembered how Berne regaled him with tales of how Mina Edison used flowers throughout her house. A mutual love of gardening allowed the two to form a close bond after Davis first arrived in North Fort Myers back in 1928. “Berne used to have Mrs. Edison over for dinner when they lived at the Seville apartments, and the wonderful evenings they all had.”

“When they coined the word lady, they meant Berne,” Galloway said. “She was the most wonderful lady I ever met, just really sweet.”

One of Berne’s biggest contributions to the downtown area of Fort Myers was her donations to the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center. In 2003, Florida Arts Inc acquired a long term lease from the City of Fort Myers to restore the old federal Post Office, transforming it to a place of art and culture.

Jim Griffith, CEO of the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center, recalled how instrumental Davis was in getting the Center to where it is today. “We had already acquired the old Federal Post Office that we would turn into the Art Center, and we were emptying out the interior for renovation when Barbara Mann and Berne Davis walked in.”
“Berne was around 18 years old when this building went up, and it’s been a part of her life,” Griffith continued. “They were curious as to what we were up to, and I told them that we were converting the space to an art center for shows and exhibits. Both were very supportive and encouraging of our efforts.”

The next time Griffith saw Berne was at a fundraiser, where she had purchased a table of 10 for the event. He remembered her attendance beforehand, as she had asked him for 3 extra seats for her party. “At first I thought whether it would be fair for everybody else attending.”

Griffith did allow her to have the extra seats, and was glad that he did, for her attendance that evening would turn out to be memorable for another reason: it was there that she announced her donation of a million dollars for the Art Center.

“Berne has been an integral part of everything we’ve done here,” Griffith said. “She attended nearly every event that we did. This was her home away from home.”
“Just to see what happened to that building is amazing,” Galloway said. “And it’s because of Berne. She’ll be remembered forever for that building.”

“She was always very welcoming,” Griffith stated. “She was always very concerned about the comfort of everyone else. Something about her southern charm, there was something very sweet about her.”

The most common thread that seemed to connect everyone’s experiences with Berne seemed to come down to that aspect of her: that she was genuinely loving and outgoing to all the people who crossed her path over the year.

“I never heard her say a cross word in all the years I knew her, and that in itself is a pretty remarkable thing,” Galloway concluded.

Trent Townsend

Read 6597 times Last modified on Thursday, 24 March 2016 08:28

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