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Champions for the Pursuit of Dreams

Posted by on Wednesday, April 28, 2010 in Impact, Spring 2010.

Doug Davis says he felt he was already a rich man when he left the School of Engineering in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a job at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near San Francisco, Calif.

“When I graduated from Vanderbilt, I had a wonderful education and no money, but I didn’t owe anyone any money,” says Davis, BE’65, and now CEO and owner of Atlanta’s Diversified Metal Fabricators. “In retrospect, I was very rich.”

Davis and his wife, Penny, hope to offer future engineers the same bright start.

“Being debt-free [at graduation] probably wasn’t that uncommon then; it is rare today,” Davis says, noting his first semester tuition in 1961 was $350. Today, a semester’s tuition is more than 50 times that amount.

Doug and Penny Davis believe in providing bright starts to future engineers.
Doug and Penny Davis believe in providing bright starts to future engineers.

The Davises have long supported the School of Engineering through its building fund and with endowed scholarships. In 2005 they set up the Doug and Penny Davis Scholarship for engineering students, adding to it each year, and are now participating in the university’s campaign to raise funds for students through the Opportunity Vanderbilt initiative. Strong proponents for education, the Davises support the university’s recent move to replace all need-based undergraduate student loans with scholarships and grant assistance through the expanded financial aid program.

“Today, tuition has a serious impact on most families’ budgets as well as leaving graduates in debt up to their eyeballs,” Davis says. “They have to spend the next 10 years not pursuing dreams but paying off debt.”

Diverse Dreams

Pursuing dreams after graduation led Davis first to California where he was part of a team of project engineers that designed Trieste III, the third generation of the bathyscape (two-person “deep boat”) Trieste, which reached a record-breaking depth of some seven miles in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. His team also designed the Deep Submersible Rescue Vehicle to conduct rescue missions for sunken submarines.

He then moved to Florida and opened a gourmet restaurant. Two years later, he moved to Atlanta to work for Bankhead Enterprises, at the time the largest manufacturer of car haulers in the United States. In 1978 he founded Diversified Metal Fabricators, which has become the leading manufacturer and supplier of high-rail equipment used in building and maintaining railroads. Davis now is semiretired and the couple divides their time between Georgia and Florida.

Davis Scholars

Davis strongly believes that he wouldn’t have had those opportunities or his diverse career without the School of Engineering. The students benefiting from Davis’ support feel the same way.

“When I graduated from Vanderbilt, I had a wonderful education and no money, but I didn’t owe anyone any money. In retrospect, I was very rich.”

~ Doug Davis

Senior Randy Lee Smith says his Davis scholarship “means the world to me.” The mechanical engineering major fell in love with both Nashville and Vanderbilt during a campus visit and knew he wanted to learn here. “The Davises’ generous donation has enabled me, and several others, to attend Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering,” he says. He was able to tell them of his appreciation when he met the couple during a campus visit in 2008. “They are extremely courteous and genuine,” he says. “We’ve kept in touch and I look forward to meeting them again soon.”

Twins and first-year engineering students Alec and Taylor Coston say their parents frequently reminded them of the burden of student loans as the two began their school searches. “I know that without help, my parents would not be able to afford to send us both to school at Vanderbilt,” Taylor says. His brother agrees. “Vanderbilt would have been a very slim possibility without financial aid,” Alec says. When the Costons received Davis scholarships through Opportunity Vanderbilt, Alec says they were overjoyed.

The Costons like problem solving, the elegance of math and the ideas behind concepts. The Atlanta natives say they were drawn to Vanderbilt engineering because they’ll get a great engineering education and exposure to strong liberal arts programs. Being well-rounded students, Davis notes, is the Vanderbilt experience, and one he thinks is unique.

“The World Will Be a Better Place”

“It’s difficult to convey to an outsider the sense of it,” he says. “One convert is Penny, who has become a cheerleader for the School of Engineering and for Vanderbilt. She always encouraged my support of the university, but a Vanderbilt event a few years ago made a huge impression on her.”

Recalling the occasion, Penny Davis concurs. “A group of freshman engineering students just blew me away,” she says. “I could imagine these students after four years at Vanderbilt. The world will be a better place. I’m Vandy through and through.”

A former teacher, Penny matches her husband’s commitment to education. She says that although their two sons and daughter didn’t attend Vanderbilt, she hopes all five grandchildren will.

The Davises aren’t sitting back, waiting for the time their grandchildren are here, however. They’re involved with their students right now.

“I hope these students will leave Vanderbilt after four years, with diplomas in hand, as rich as I was in 1965,” Davis says.