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Honoring Dean Willard Davis

February 17, 2014

By: Mary Anne Fitzpatrick

After moving the administrative offices of the College of Arts and Sciences into the Petigru building a few months ago, I went in search of portraits of the previous deans of the college in order to decorate the freshly painted, empty walls.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered we had no portraits; though, surely we must have had deans!

It was a puzzle to me that the oldest, largest, and most academically diverse college at the University of South Carolina did not have any portraits of its leaders, who date back to the 19th century.  The deep commitment to understanding the past and our history seems pervasive in our culture, yet it is absent in the college.

I was able to acquire portraits of many of the outstanding 19th century scholars and scientists who held positions on the faculty, and the portraits of these men (and even some student leaders) now grace the walls of our new main office.  In addition to the portraits of the men who served the college in its past, I located a portrait of Professor Irene Dillard Elliott, who became the first female professor in the college (Department of English Language and Literature) in 1924. Professor Elliott also served as the first “dean of women,” a position created by many universities to handle the addition of young women to their previously male dominated student bodies.  We no longer have the need for a dean of women, but, thankfully, we do have many deans who are women.

The College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina was (re)established in 2005 when I became the dean.  In 1970, the constituent units of the college were broken apart into separate schools and colleges.  I have the pleasure of knowing one of the former deans from the 1960s, H. Willard Davis, who served as dean of the college from 1960 through 1966.

Willard had an exemplary career here as the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, as the dean of the College of Arts and Science, as Provost, as Vice President for Advanced Studies and Research, and as Vice President of the Regional Campuses.  I decided that our new space should have a portrait of Willard to remind us of our history and of his work on our behalf.

Our university files did not contain suitable photographs of Willard, so I contacted his family, a close-knit and talented group that continues to contribute to the advancement of the University of South Carolina and of the College of Arts and Sciences. I explained to the Davis family that I wanted to have a portrait commissioned and that I needed a photograph of Willard from the time period when he served as dean.  Not only did the family go through the photographs to offer suitable choices but his daughter-in-law, Salley Davis, insisted on doing the portrait herself as a gift for Willard.  Salley said that Willard had always supported her work as an artist and that she wanted to do this tribute in his honor.  

On Thursday, February 6, 2014, we held a reception to unveil the portrait of H. Willard Davis. Carolina Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Dan Reger spoke about having been hired from MIT by Willard and said that Willard had built such a strong research and teaching department that Dan knew he wanted to have his career here at the University of South Carolina. Vice Provost of the System Chris Plyler spoke of what Willard had done in order to establish the strong system of USC schools across the state, and I spoke about how much Willard’s advice and counsel have meant to me during my eight years as dean.

The portrait is the pride of the place, located in the major conference room of the College of Arts and Sciences.  As we conduct the day-to -day business of the college, the portrait of Willard looking down on us will serve as a reminder that the pursuit of excellence must always go hand in hand with grace and a tolerance for diverse views.  

Read Previous Posts By Dean Fitzpatrick.