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Davis recalls first day on the job at Culver -- 77 years ago -- and life on campus, in town, and on the farm

January 11, 2013

Elisabeth Davis, left, is pictured with Rheta Bradke of Culver Academies’ Admissions Office this fall during the weekly informal gathering of CGA students with their adult mentors. (Davis, though not a mentor, was one of several women joining those hosting their mentees outside the Admissions Office). Photo/Doug Haberland, Culver Academies Communications

Elisabeth may hold a completely unique place in the history of Culver -- both the town and the Academies, where she'll likely head to work today just as she did on March 15, 1936, nearly 77 years ago. Even discounting the seven years she spent home, raising her young children, that still makes 70 years of employment at the same Culver institution. And she's still at it.

"Mrs. Davis" -- as she's been known on campus all these years -- was interviewed and hired by then-Lt. John W. Henderson (late Col. and Dean Henderson), father of Jim Henderson, an immeasurable force in supporting and promoting today's Culver Academies. At that time, Leigh Gignilliat -- the man who launched the Black Horse Troop, engineered its involvement in Presidential Inaugurals, and played a huge role in crafting the school as it is today -- was the superintendent. Through the years, Davis would work with Academies heads Colonel Gregory, Seddon Fleet, Colonel Elliott, General Spivey, General Dobson, Lieutenant General Carpenter, Dean Benson, Colonel Barone, Dean Mars, and Dean Manuel, and of course today's Head of Schools, John Buxton.

Her work, at the Admissions Office in East Barrack, remains a critical part of the "behind the scenes" functions of the school, where she maintains over a century's worth of documents and records; and that's not to mention the invaluable asset of her memory itself.
That memory contains, of course, not just the decades past of Culver Academies, but those of the broader Culver area, where her family's roots run deep.

DEEP CULVER ROOTS

Her mother Nora Pearl, of the Voreis and Hatten families, was the oldest girl in a family of 10 from east Pennsylvania. Elisabeth's father Jesse Zechiel's family had come from Germany, though he was born in this area after the family settled west of town.

"When my father could do work, he couldn't go to school until they had their crops all in. His father (who died when he was 12) remarried and my father had to get out on his own. He went to work in the Burr Oak area; that's where he met my mother."

Davis' parents lived and farmed east of Lake Maxinkuckee. She was born, she says, close to the Poplar Grove Methodist Church, "around the corner on the house up the hill, south of the church."

Family members and friends know she earned the nickname "Auntie Babe" pretty early on, while her mother was in the hospital and her aunt cared for her as a baby, giving her the nickname, which has stuck ever since.

Many in Culver will recall Elisabeth Davis' brother Ferris, who was born near Burr Oak during the time her father worked for the Vonnegut family near what later became the Academy airport. Ferris passed away in 2010 at age 101. Their sister, Marguerite, died in 2009.

When Elisabeth was 3, her family moved next to the Burr Oak cemetery, where they farmed as they did their entire lives.

The family kept seven or eight cows, and Elisabeth's father would milk them early in the winter mornings before walking from Burr Oak to Culver to spend the day working in the Medbourn ice house on East Jefferson Street. Her uncle's brother-in-law furnished the horses which pulled the ice blocks out of the lake. When dark hit, she says, her father would trudge home and milk the family's cows again.

HENRY ZECHIEL'S FARM AND THE CLOVERLEAF DAIRY

Elisabeth recalls relative Henry Zechiel (who then resided where CVS Pharmacy is today, at Ohio and Jefferson Streets) wanting "a good guy to run his farm," so Grandpa Hatten suggested Elisabeth's father Jesse. There were over 300 acres to farm on Henry's land, west of town on State Road 17. Cows, of course, were milked by hand.

She remembers airplanes landing in the hayfield on that farm when she was a child, and portable steps being set up so Culver residents could step in and take plane rides.

Another vivid memory is hearing her brother and father talk about witnessing the getaway car drive by immediately following the 1933 robbery of the State Exchange Bank. The Zechiels watched as the robbers dumped their hostage, bank employee Carl Adams, from the vehicle, part of a dramatic incident in which a Culver posse tracked down the robbers, making national headlines in the process.

After that day, says Davis, a large sign was kept on the Zechiel family porch in case of another robbery and getaway.

"They could tie the sign to the fence on each side and put it across the road (to stop escaping bandits)," she says.

She recalls her family paying to have electricity finally brought to the house, which facilitated purchase of a milking machine. Prior to that, they milked the 40 or so cows by hand. The milk was the life's blood of the Cloverleaf Dairy, which Henry Zechiel operated across the street and just west of his home. The dairy started at the northeast corner of Slate and Jefferson Streets, though it later moved directly south, to the site of today's Hammer's Garage.

"Henry came out and picked up the milk (from the farm) every morning," says Davis. "He prepared it for bottles for the dairy. We got half the check."

Milk, of course, was placed on residents' doorsteps in those days, and Cloverleaf was one of several active delivery and bottling business operating in Culver at the time, including the Lake View and Miller Dairies.

The house and farm buildings at the family's old home west of town are today but a memory, having burned years ago.

SCHOOL DAYS

Elisabeth attended school in Culver (by the time she was old enough, the little Burr Oak school near their home had shut down), graduating in the class of 1935. She doesn't remember many details about her early school years, but she does recall bus driver Sam Jones picking the students up in a sleigh during the snowy wintertime.

"One night the sleigh upset going into town (after school)," she recalls. "Robert Osborn was my classmate; he just cried. Nobody got hurt."

In spite of the Great Depression raging at the time, Davis' high school class of 44 took the standard class trip to Washington, DC. One classmate's father worked for the philanthropic Marmon family on the east side of the lake, and the family helped offset the cost of the trip, she says.

Davis also recalls her father driving the family to town each Saturday for groceries. In those days, O.T. Goss ran the hardware store in the same Main Street building it occupies today.

"The men and my father's brother would go to the hardware and Mr. Goss would let them visit in there while the women did their shopping."

She began piano lessons under Elizabeth Hubble starting in the third grade and through high school; she would become church pianist at Mount Hope United Methodist for much of her life.

Her parents' family had started out at Poplar Grove church, but with the move to Burr Oak, they joined the Burr Oak Church of God there (Elisabeth would make the move to Mount Hope after marrying Eldon Davis).

"I lived through the Depression and World War II," Davis notes. "The folks said we were poor, but I never felt we were poor. We always had enough to eat, but mother did sewing and took hand-me-downs."

During her senior year at Culver High School, Elisabeth Davis says she was fortunate to be one of the seven or eight students out of 25 chosen to take typing classes. She'd hoped to attend college, but the money wasn't there, so after graduation, she headed back to the high school to take shorthand classes.

EARLY DAYS AT CMA

A cousin working at Culver Military Academy suggested Elisabeth interview for a position in the Admissions office, which in those days was upstairs from its current home.

In those days, she says, Henderson occupied the two rooms from the stairway east, with a summer and winter school secretary in the end room. One woman was head of the office and another handled bookkeeping. Everything was done in pen and ink, she recalls, not typed. For a number of years, Elisabeth herself addressed Culver catalogs to those who inquired for them, some days as many as 500 catalogs per day.

Three years after she was hired, the Admissions office was moved across Sally Port to the north. Elisabeth worked her way up until she was a typist and secretary, answering phones and keeping the books.

"I could tell you how many were in the summer school and winter school," she says, and she also typed the student rosters.

"Dean Henderson gave me two days (to type the entire roster), so I learned to type accurate and fast!"

Over the decades, Elisabeth Davis amassed knowledge of the sorts of details unlikely to make it into the historical annals of the school. For example, faculty members were required for a number of earlier years to attend chapel. If they missed, they received a letter from the superintendent Monday morning seeking an explanation.

Davis found all those letters after the building's basement flooded in August, 1988. The water-damaged files were first sent to Logansport to be frozen; then to Georgia for drying. Dean Nagy asked her to sift through the resultant files and discard what was no longer relevant.

She recalls staff members once having to have a leave slip indicating destination and duration, should they wish to leave campus, with arrangements made for duties to be covered. Those permission slips, too, were kept after the flood, she says.

"Things were very firm," she told the Culver Alumni magazine in a 1998 article recalling her service, "with the faculty and the staff, and also with the students. But Dean Henderson always made it very clear, just like we do today, tout Culver stands for academics."

Davis also clips any mention of a faculty member in the media, and keeps collections relating to former faculty as well.

"Everything used to be in writing; now it's not that way, with the computers. They do things differently. "

Davis recalls Gen. Gignilliat "doing a lot of entertainment" of guests and dignitaries at the campus, including foreign visitors of note. She also recalls superintendent Col. Gregory serving three years with the Army during World War II, one of several faculty who served during that period. She fondly recalls the late Dean John Mars and his kindness to employees during his tenure at the helm of the school.

"Distant cousin" the late Verda Romig was also a household name at Culver Academy. She joined the Commandant's Office in 1932 and retired in 1972.

MARRIAGE AND CHILDREN

Elisabeth Davis met her husband, the late Eldon Davis (he passed away in 2004), while the two were in school.

"He would come and sit with me at ballgames," she recalls.

The two were married at the Burr Oak Church of God in 1945, as the war wound down. Due to the war, however, she says acquiring electrical equipment was sometimes a challenge. A cottager on Lake Maxinkuckee who was acquainted with Elisabeth's mother and who worked in Chicago procured the couple a refrigerator at one of the large department stores in the Windy City.

"It was a display model; she hauled it down on the trailer with a table and chairs. It's still running today and we've never had a service call on it! It's setting in my kitchen now."

Immediately after marriage, the Davises moved to the Fulton County farm where she still lives. The couple farmed full time to help make ends meet, and Eldon was exempted from military service since he had to be on the farm.

Soon children Paul and Eldonna arrived, and Elisabeth took time away from her Academy post from 1954 to 1961.

When the children were little, Eldon's brother Don would help with the milking, recalls Elisabeth, so once a year the family could take the children as far as they could drive in a weekend ("The kids just wanted to make sure they had a swimming pool!" she says).

"That was our vacation," she says of the annual trip.

Over the years, Eldon Davis served as Aubbeenaubbee Township trustee for two terms, as well as a number of years on the Culver Comm. school board.

Paul attended Ivy Tech to study computers, and Eldonna took secretarial courses in Elkhart, though Paul would later return to farming, where he assisted Eldon with the duties. In the mid-1990s, the decision had to be made to sell the dairy cows, due partly to Eldon's health and partly to the cost of staying in the business as requirements (and thus costs) increased in the dairy industry. The Davises had been milking some 50 cows.

Theirs is one of many dairy farms -- local and national -- to fade away in lieu of massive operations, for a variety of reasons. The Davises, however, maintain the farm itself, with Paul handling most of the duties.

"The good Lord's blessed us," says Elisabeth, "and now since Eldon's gone, it's a blessing to work. It's hard for me to adjust. I can't get out and drive and go; it's not safe."

Neighbor and co-worker Chris McNamara picks her up most days for work at the school.

"I will work as long as I can be of help," she says. "I just work from day to day and be thankful."

ACADEMIES CHANGES

Davis recalls some of the many sea changes at Culver Academies through the years, including the arrival of female students on campus and the launch of the eventual Culver Girls Academy.

"When Mr. Barone was superintendent, the boys could not hold a girl's hand or put his hand around her," she recalls. "He was the only one that emphasized that."

The biggest change, however, has been the computer revolution, which has affected virtually every aspect of how work is handled at the school.

"This technology is beyond my little mind," she smiles.

Through the years she received a watch marking her 25 years of service, and in 1994 a clock. During Culver Academies' Reunion weekend in 1998, Davis received honorary Culver Legion membership and a Culver ring in recognition of her service. Then-Legion President Richard Foster (class of 1961) called her "absolutely irreplaceable."

"I've enjoyed my work," she responded at the time, "and didn't want to leave with a rocking chair."

She told the Alumni magazine later that year that doesn't deserve the ring. "But I sure am proud to have it. How wonderful."

"I didn't expect to work here that long," she added. "But it worked out, and the school's been very good to me."

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