W. Clark Davis (1966-2003)

Michelle Nickerson, William Haddad, and Benjamin Johnson, May 2003

W. Clark DavisW. Clark Davis, associate professor of history at California State University at Fullerton, died on February 4, 2003, at age 36. He was entering the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, when he suffered a heart attack. Davis specialized in the history of California, business culture, race, gender, and ethnicity in the United States. His short career was distinguished by exceptionally fine teaching, valued service to the historical community, and scholarship that earned him national attention.

Clark Davis was born and raised in Southern California, where he graduated from Loma Linda Academy in 1984 as co-president of his senior class. He developed his interest in history and American politics at the La Sierra campus of Loma Linda University (now La Sierra University), where he completed a BA in 1988. His undergraduate thesis on the early status of women in the College of Medical Evangelists, the original name of Loma Linda University, led him to the graduate program in history at the University of Southern California, where he received his PhD in 1994.

Davis began his career by returning to La Sierra University in Riverside, California. There he gave unstintingly of himself, winning the university's highest award for teaching, serving as president of the faculty senate, and earning tenure in the spring of 2000. That fall he joined the history faculty at California State University at Fullerton, where he was awarded early promotion and tenure. Davis's colleagues, who admired him deeply, elected him vice-chair of the history department in 2002.

Davis's primary research interest was the lived experience of economic life in the modern United States. In Company Men: White-Collar Life and Corporate Culture in Los Angeles, 1892–1941 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000), he brought the questions and tools of labor and social history to bear on the lives of salaried corporate employees. As more and more Americans began working for large companies, the corporate workplace became "the shopfloor of the nation's modern middle class." And like the more heavily studied wage labor workplaces—but unlike most depictions of the middle class—this was a contested ground. Previous notions of economic success that emphasized independence and individual accomplishment collided with the reality of lifelong service to a large bureaucracy. The "feminization" of office clerical work particularly threatened corporate America's ability to present its positions as the fulfillment of middle-class manliness. Davis thus argued that corporations had to engage in a sustained campaign to win their employees' loyalty and to present corporate work as a reasonable blend of security, autonomy, and status. Although corporate employers institutionalized promotion systems and engaged in promotional efforts that stressed the masculine virtues of corporate work, the anti-bureaucratic strains of middle-class culture were never fully eradicated.

Davis addressed similar themes in the numerous articles and reviews he published in a variety of scholarly and public venues, including the Los Angeles Times, the Pacific Historical Review, Labor History, Enterprise and Society, Journal of Multi-Media History, Westways, The Middling Sorts: Explorations in the History of the American Middle Class (Routledge), and Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s (University of California Press). Most recently, Davis became book review editor of the Southern California Quarterly. In The Human Tradition in Southern California (Scholarly Resources, 2002), which he co-edited with his friend David Igler, he furthered his interests in California culture, society, politics, and economy by gathering biographical essays on emblematic figures in the state's history. At the time of his death, he was at work on two other book projects: one on changing notions of occupational success in modern America and the other on his native Los Angeles in the 20th century.

Publishing was just one of the ways in which Davis influenced the profession. His death leaves a void at the Huntington Library, where countless researchers benefited from his presence in informal conversations and his leadership as co-director of the Los Angeles History Research Group. At California State University at Fullerton, Davis made the classroom a primary outlet for his creative energies and political engagement. He pushed the writing and critical thinking skills of his students, engaged them in active learning by using multiple modes of instructional technology and media, and insisted they understand the multicultural and political dimensions of U.S. history. He advocated "closing the circle," as he called it, by continually modifying his teaching on the basis of what he learned from student responses and achievement. At Fullerton, Davis was also able to pursue his interest in public history by taking an active role in the university's Center for Oral and Public History.

Such a brief survey of Clark Davis's career fails to capture the humor, warmth, and generosity of spirit that made him so beloved to thousands of students and hundreds of fellow scholars. He was a model person of letters—deeply humane, publicly engaged, and politically passionate. Davis is survived by his wife, Cheryl Koos, assistant professor of history at California State University at Los Angeles, who is expecting their first child in late spring; by his older brother, Mark; and by his parents, M. Jerry and Sylvia Davis. His loss is mourned by countless others.

—Michelle Nickerson, Yale University
—William Haddad, California State University at Fullerton
—Benjamin Johnson, Southern Methodist University