Thursday, May 06, 2021


J. 'Jack' Sanford Davis


J. “Jack” Sanford Davis, son of impoverished immigrants fleeing war and anti-Semitism in Poland and Russia, started life as a scrappy pushcart peddler. He lived mostly on the streets of the Depression-ravaged neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn; there was little reason to think he would beat the odds and make it. But by the end of his life at the age of 97 on April 9, 2021, Jack had earned a giant reputation as an international pioneer in child psychology and, with his wife Helen, as a revered civic innovator in Madison, a leading shoreline philanthropist and art patron, and a beloved father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He made it by dint of a relentless bootstraps drive; or as The Source newspaper put it in a 2006 front-page profile: “Meeting Jack Davis is a little like stepping into a whirlwind.”

Throughout Jack’s life, the pushcart was a touchstone. He would say he learned everything he needed not from the elite Stuyvesant High School, or from his Ph.D. in psychology achieved at night school at New York University, but from the pushcart he would stock every morning as a kid with his father Sam, an out-of-work bricklayer, learning how to charm discerning, penny-wise customers to buy fruits and vegetables.

Following graduation from NYU, Jack became the youngest-ever faculty member to teach psychology at the university. He swiftly constructed an identity for himself as an assimilated American, learning, he would later recall, how to pick just the right tweed jacket to suit a respectable NYU professor. His parents, while loving, knew little English, less of American ways, and nothing of academia; they had no way to help. But Jack had a natural irrepressible energy—and he was bent on doing everything in his power to leave the streets of Brownsville behind.

He soon exchanged NYU for the U.S. Navy, where he staffed psychological research at the top-secret Office of Naval Research intelligence facility on Long Island. It was during this time that Jack met Helen Hyman on a blind date. She was classy and came from well-off parents; her father was a top insurance executive with a company car and chauffeur. Jack was hardscrabble, from the tenements. Yet once married in January 1954, they rarely spent a day apart in almost 66 years of loving partnership.

In June 1956, Helen and Jack drove the long, slow, pre-turnpike Boston Post Road from New York to a new home in Madison, in a car packed with suitcases and a one-year-old baby named Stephen. Jack’s parents had finally been able to help by giving the young couple their life savings so they could purchase a small institution for children on an old game farm.

Working day and night, Jack turned the Grove School into an international leader in residential treatment that has helped thousands of adolescents. Even in his last days, he continued to get phone calls from former students thanking him for saving their lives. He made Grove a training ground for international programs for adolescent care and became a transformative figure in the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. As he succeeded, Jack never forgot his roots, giving generously to his parents—always letting them think it was a simple repayment of the kitty they lent him to buy Grove.

Helen and Jack had two other children, Russell and Jerry. With Grove occupying Jack 24/7, he wanted his annual December vacations with family as far from work as possible. Every year starting in the early 1960s, the intrepid couple took their young children on far-flung adventures to places such as the Peruvian jungle, the Saharan desert, the mountains of New Guinea and Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Iran. An enthusiastic Rotary member, Jack brought his club’s flags on these trips and traded them for local club tokens.

Always civic minded, Jack had fun coming up with creative solutions. When the Rotary needed to raise funds, he had the idea of “fining” members whenever one appeared in the paper or on TV. In Madison, Jack registered as a Democrat—one of the few then in town—and served 20 years as an elected member of the Board of Finance. From that perch he led the effort to purchase the beach property that is now the treasured Surf Club. He later helped mastermind the innovative Madison Mile, making the town a renowned destination for outdoor sculpture. Starting Davis Realty, he built the Clippership apartments and saved the iconic Madison Arts Cinema. Jack and Helen also were lead founders of Temple Beth Tikvah, hosting countless bagels-and-lox planning breakfasts, and helped start Madison ABC and the Madison Foundation.

Along with those sweeping accomplishments, Jack and Helen engineered numerous, quiet, everyday contributions such as hosting annual parties for Madison Hose Company No. 1, sponsoring yearly after-prom parties for Daniel Hand High School, and giving generously over many years to the Scranton Library, the annual Concert on the Green, the Madison Historical Society, and many others. The couple hosted annual Democratic cocktail parties for 18 years in a row. They donated binoculars so kids could watch birds at Tuxis Pond and umbrellas to keep downtown shoppers dry. A friend or stranger would often find Jack offering a belt, or a flashlight, or a beautifully wrapped bar of soap from the trunk of his car. The long-ago poverty of the Depression was embedded in Jack’s soul—he bought in bulk and gave away in bulk. In his last months he never let any visiting nurse leave the house empty-handed.

In recognition of his many contributions to Madison, the town selectmen unanimously awarded Jack its Don Rankin Community Service Award in 2020.

Jack never liked to look back—his only gear, seemingly, was fast-forward. “When I was a kid in Brownsville, I always dreamed of getting out, seeing the world. I was not going to be a bricklayer or a vegetable salesman. No way. Do you know what I did? I would take a nickel to go on the subway, and I would head to the very first car, so I could see out the front. But instead of getting off in Manhattan, I would stay on for a whole circuit—that would be about 2 ½ hours—and I would see everything. For a nickel! I could see what was out there.”

Jack leaves Stephen and Clo Davis of Madison, Russell and Debbi Davis of San Diego, California, and Jerry and Katie Davis of Madison; grandchildren Alyssa Gutner-Davis and Nick England, Carly Gutner-Davis, and Kara Levis and Aaron Levis; Benny Davis and Ruby Davis; James Griffith and Niall Mangan, Jacob and Christina Griffith, and Gabriel Davis; and great-grandchildren, Alice Griffith and Jacques Mangan.

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