Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry
Two well-connected players on the Omaha entrepreneurial scene and two stalwart figures in efforts to revitalize predominantly African-American North Omaha are Michael Green and Dick Davis. The Omaha natives go way back together and they share a deep understanding of what it will take to turn around a community that lags far behind the rest of the city in terms of income, commerce, jobs, education, housing starts, et cetera.
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Growing up in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Michael Green and Dick Davis knew The Smell of Money from the pungent odors of the bustling packing plants and stockyards near the Southside Terrace apartments they lived in. Buddies from age 4, these now middle aged men began life in similar disadvantaged straits, yet each has gone on to make his fortune.
Instead of the old blue collar model they were exposed to as kids, they’ve achieved the Sweet Smell of Success associated with the fresh, squeaky clean halls of corporate office suites. Education got them there. Each man holds at least one post-graduate degree.
Along the way, there have been some detours. As kids they moved with their families to North O, where they became star athletes. They were teammates at Horace Mann Junior High before becoming opponents at rival high schools — Green at Tech and Davis at North. Both earned accolades for their gridiron exploits as running backs. Green, a sprint star in track, was a speed merchant, yet still rugged enough to play tackle, fullback and linebacker. Davis, a two-time unbeaten state wrestling champ, was a bruiser, yet still swift enough to outrun defenders.
The Division I football recruits reunited as teammates at Nebraska in the mid-’60s — excelling in the offensive backfield under head coach Bob Devaney and position coach Mike Corgan. They never saw action at the same time. Green, a halfback his first two years, co-captained the Huskers’ 1969 Sun Bowl championship team at fullback. Davis was in the mold of the classic blocking, short yardage fullback but he could also catch passes out of the backfield. Drafted a year apart by the NFL, they each pursued pro football careers, but not before getting their degrees — Green in economics and marketing and Davis in education. It wasn’t long before each opted to take a different route to success — one that involved brain, not brawn and three-piece-suits, not uniforms or helmets.
They ended up as executives with major Omaha companies. Today each is the owner of his own company. Green is founder, president and chief investment officer of Evergreen Capital Management, Nebraska’s only minority-owned registered investment advisor. Davis is CEO of Davis Cos., a holding company for firms providing insurance brokerage, financial consulting and contractor development services. Green handles hundreds of millions of dollars in managed assets for institutional clients. Davis Cos., with offices in multiple states, generates millions in revenues and is one of Omaha’s fastest growing firms.
The two men’s stories of entrepreneurial success are remarkable given that in the era they came up in there were few African American role models in business. Back in the day, blacks’ best hopes for good paying jobs were with the packing plants, the railroad or in construction. Few blacks made it past high school. One gateway out of the ghetto and into higher education was through athletics, and both Green and Davis were talented enough to earn scholarships to Nebraska. The opportunities and lessons NU afforded them — both in the classroom and on the field — opened up possibilities that otherwise may have eluded them.
Having come so far from such humble beginnings, neither man has lost sight of his people’s struggle. Both are immersed in efforts to address the problems and needs facing inner city African Americans. Green and Davis are leaders in a growing Omaha movement of educated and concerned blacks working together with broad private-public coalitions to make a difference in key quality of life categories. These initiatives are putting in place covenants, strategies, plans, programs and opportunities to help spur economic development, create jobs, provide scholarships and do whatever else is needed to help blacks help themselves.
Some efforts are community-driven, with Green and Davis serving as committee members/chairs. Others are spearheaded by the men themselves. For example, Davis is the driving force behind the North Omaha Foundation for Human Development, the Davis-Chambers Scholarship Endowment and Omaha 20/20, efforts aimed at community betterment, educational opportunities and economic development, respectively. Green has led a minority internship program that guides young black men and women into the financial services field. He helps direct the Ahman Green Foundation for Youth Development, which awards grants to youth organizations and holds a week-long football/academic camp. The foundation’s namesake, Husker legend Ahman Green, is his nephew.
Individually and collectively Green and Davis represent some high aspirations and achievements. They’re trying to give fellow blacks the tools to dream and reach those things for themselves. The two defied the long odds and low expectations society set for them and now actively work to improve the chances and raise the bar for others. The paths forged by these men offer a road to success. They’re putting in place guideposts for new generations to follow in their footsteps.
Recently, Green and Davis sat down with the New Horizons. In separate interviews they discussed their own journey and the road map for setting more blacks on the path to the American Dream.
Responsibility and leadership came early for Michael Green. As the oldest of five kids whose single mother worked outside the house, he was often charged with the task of looking after his younger siblings. His mom, Katherine Green, worked in the Douglas County Hospital kitchens before getting on with the U.S. Postal Service, where she retired after 30-plus years. Sundays meant getting dressed for services and bible school at Salem Baptist Church. He remains in awe of what his mom did to take care of the family.
“My mother raised us kids as a single working mom,” he said. “A very stable person. We didn’t know what poor was. I mean, she provided for us. We didn’t have the best of everything but we always had a place to live and food on the table. She was always home when she wasn’t working. On Saturday mornings she’d always get up and cook us a big breakfast with eggs and pancakes and everything and it conditioned me so much there’s hardly a Saturday morning I don’t crave eggs.”
It was an era of segregation and limited horizons for blacks but families and neighborhoods were tighter and in many ways, Green said, “it was really better times back then. Our parents worked. They provided for us. We didn’t even have the equivalent of cell phones or iPods and stuff like that, but we played, we improvised, we made our own skateboards and soap box derby carts and sling shots. If you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing bad news, as we’d say, would probably beat you home because neighbors knew who you were and knew who your parents were. They’d call and say, ‘Michael’s down the street doing this’ and by the time you got home you’d hear about it.”
His mother, he said, “had one mantra — get an education. I can remember in my childhood saying I wanted to play pro baseball. She said, ‘That’s fine, but make sure you know how to do something else.’ I had no clue what she was talking about. ‘What do you mean? I won’t have to. I’m going to play pro baseball. What else is there?’” Years passed before he knew how firmly her advice sunk in.
“It’s just funny how God works,” he said, “because it wasn’t until I walked across the stage to accept my (college) diploma that conversation popped into the front of my head. It just kind of stuck back there in my subconscious. I had made up my mind I was going to get my degree, so I knew I could do something else.”
Green didn’t get involved in organized athletics until junior high. Pickup games were common at Kountze Park, the YMCA and area schools. He and his kid brother David first flashed their speed at Horace Mann, where gym teacher/athletic coach Bob Rose saw their ability.
“He was a father on the field for many of us,” Green said of Rose. Green’s parents never married and his father was mostly out of the picture.
The Green brothers were not alone making their mark athletically on the north side. The area was then and is now a fertile ground for athletic excellence. A relatively small geographic area produced such standouts as Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer and Fred Hare. Before the Green brothers there were the Sayers brothers (Gale, Roger and Ron), the Nared boys (Rich and John) and the Boones (Ron and Co.). The same time the Greens were turning heads Dick Davis and his older brother Ricky Davis were doing the same. Leslie Webster starred. Joe Orduna, Phil Wise, Johnny Rodgers, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee and a host of others followed.
Green and his brother David ended up at Tech, rather than at North like his childhood friend Dick Davis, because it was where mom went to school.
“Tech, like a lot of the inner city schools, has a history where a lot of family generations went through that school,” he said. “My family’s a prime example. My mom graduated from Tech. My brother and I did. Cousins. It has a lot of emotional legacy for us Tech grads, primarily because Tech is closed now.”
The feeling runs so deep that Green chairs the Tech High Auditorium Restoration Project that’s raising funds for refurbishing the building’s 2,000-plus seat venue — one that hosted world class performing artists and public figures in its heyday.
“Professionals who have come and looked at it — from acoustics experts to engineers of various kinds — have said it’s in tremendous condition and just needs to be updated and restored,” he said.
Coming out of Tech to play for the “jovial” Devaney was not a hard sell.
“He and I hit it off right away. Very down to earth. He wasn’t like the Lombardi caricature of a coach. More of a father figure,” Green said.
Bob Devaney with 1969 co-captains Dana Stephenson and Mike Green, No. 34
Something Green didn’t appreciate until years later is how Devaney showed unusual sensitivity for the time by taking into account that except for a few athletes NU had markedly few black students. He said the Old Irishman even expressed interest in enrolling more blacks at Lincoln — athletes or not — in order to create a more comfortable environment for blacks.
Green said admiringly, “He was very concerned about the black experience we would have off the field.” It would be some years yet, he said, before the black population on campus increased appreciably.
When Green played, team captain honors always went to seniors. As a senior in ‘69 he was expecting the quarterback to get the offensive captain’s nod but halfway through fall scrimmage no vote had been taken yet to name anyone. He recalled being upset after “a particularly sloppy scrimmage” in preparation for the season opener against perennial power Southern Cal. “I started yelling at everybody on the sideline. I just went off on ‘em. Then we had a team meeting to elect the captains and somebody nominated me. They all voted and it was overwhelming they wanted me to be captain. I was just shocked.”
The experience taught him something he’s carried with him through life.
“I guess what I learned is that if you’re proactive about the way you go about things you don’t wait for something to happen, you don’t wait for somebody else to do something. You see something you want to do and you figure out how you want to get it done,” he said. Even if that means saying some hard things.
That motivated approach led him to get his degree before he left school for the NFL and to have a Plan B in place in case things didn’t work out with football.
The San Diego Chargers drafted him in the later rounds. He made the cut but this was a time before free agency. Players were property that could be bought, sold, traded with impunity. Seeing veterans traded overnight, their life and the lives of their loved ones disrupted, was a wake up call.
“What was sobering for me was the business end of pro ball where if you weren’t starting you could be living in San Diego today be shipped off to Cleveland tomorrow. That happened to a guy in training camp. You were strictly at the mercy of the team…There was no contract negotiation. You had to be a real star to have some leverage. Your only alternative was to hold out.”
If the NFL didn’t pan out he was going to have other options. He said athletics taught him not only how to compete but “how to grow from defeat,” he said. “It’s not some big epiphany but every single week after a game, win or lose, we’d go into film sessions and get critiqued on what we did right and wrong. Well, that kind of process conditions you to learn from mistakes automatically. It also conditions you to not be afraid to fail. You take a real, unemotional, objective look at what happened.” That same calculated analysis has served him well in life.
When he left the Chargers, his Plan B was already in motion due to some good fortune and foresight. He’d graduated from NU in the spring of ‘70 and was preparing for his shot at the NFL when he and Husker teammate Guy Ingles were invited to participate in a promotion at Omaha National Bank (now US Bank). At the gig Green said he met bank big wig Michael Yanney and “we took a liking to each other.” The next thing Green knew, he was offered a job.
When he saw the writing on the wall after that one season in San Diego, Green came back to Omaha knowing he had a job waiting for him.
“Talk about things happening for a reason,” Green said, still struck by the sequence of events that launched his financial services career.
By the time he worked his way up to the commercial lending area, Green knew banking was a good fit. The work introduced him to small local business owners, whose entrepreneurial spirit planted the seed of a dream in him.
“I was really impressed with these people — that they had their own destinies in their own hands. They weren’t like fabulously wealthy but they were doing quite well. And the thing that attracted me was they were their own boss. That experience made me say, I want to work for myself. It was more of a dream than a plan at that point.”
Harsh reality pushed his dream into action when he realized there was a glass ceiling at the bank for women and people of color.
“I learned after awhile there was a snowball’s chance in hell of a minority becoming a senior officer at the bank,” he said. “The irony is that this same institution paid for me to get my MBA (taking night classes at UNO). They paid for the whole thing and yet they allowed me to walk out the door two years later,” he said, referring to his taking a better offer from Northern Natural Gas Co. (part of Enron).
What convinced him to leave the bank was seeing less qualified individuals promoted or hired ahead of him.
“I was there eight years, working my way up through the organization and I saw people brought into the bank that didn’t have degrees. But they had worked in the agricultural divisions of small banks. Omaha National at that time did a lot of agricultural lending. These guys would be brought in and given titles and positions of authority much higher than mine.”
In some cases, he said, the new hires got the job only because they were the sons of rich cattle ranch owners. They were all white, of course.
“That was the first real dose of corporate racism,” said Green, adding, “I would have stayed had they just treated me like they treated everybody else — because I liked banking.”
Sadly, he said the experience of blacks being passed over for upper management is still common in corporate Omaha, a red flag for a city whose black population has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates and smallest middle classes.
“Even today…you don’t have a lot of blacks, women or other minorities reporting to CEOs or to the second in command. And Omaha’s different than a lot of other cities in that,” he said. “For some reason, the practice of inclusion and diversity has not completely permeated the corporate fabric. We haven’t gotten there yet — even after all these years.
“In a perfect world, if you threw out all the opportunities on the table and everybody had an equal chance to grab at those…and do with them what they would, then Omaha would look very much the same as far as the buildings on the outside. But the makeup of people on the inside would look very different.”
Reversing the dearth of black executives and entrepreneurs and the small black middle class can’t be mandated, he said. “There’s no government legislation that’s going to change that. That’s a social and cultural phenomenon that has to be rectified in the corporate suites.”
In his opinion there’s a disconnect in Omaha between supporting affirmative action with words and implementing it with deeds.
“And regardless of what the corporate leaders in this town say they only need to look at their organizations,” he said.
He said no matter how much lip service is paid to diversity firms will struggle recruiting and retaining people of color as long as they only have white faces at the top. “You tell me you want to welcome me into an inclusive organization,” he said, “but the picture you’re showing me is totally opposite…”
He said racial division lines in Omaha extend to select neighborhoods, country clubs, social groups and high society events that are mostly if not exclusively white.
“When we go into a different or new environment the normal human response is to look for folks who are like us and have had similar experiences to start bonding and getting immersed…” he said. Absent that, you feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.
Omaha pays a heavy price for exclusion. Companies that practice diversity are less likely to locate here, he said, because they don’t see diversity in Omaha’s own executive ranks. And countless black Omahans have left here for more inclusive, more tolerant, more integrated communities that offer more opportunities.
In considering why Omaha’s not on board with diversity he said there “is one phenomenon it might be attributed to. With the exception of Union Pacific, most of the large corporations here — the Mutuals, the First Nationals. ConAgra — grew up here in this environment where there wasn’t that kind of diversity among their corporate brethren.”
After nine years in financial management at Enron Green found the corporate ladder once again only went up so high for minorities. Then the company moved to Houston. Offered a transfer, he instead opted for a buy out. This time, he didn’t have so much a Plan B in mind as he did a dream. To be his own boss. To reach it he struck a deal with Omaha investment banking firm Kirkpatrick Pettis, Smith, Polian Inc., which provided in-kind start-up help in the form of office space, clerical support and computer systems in exchange for half his revenues.
“It worked out pretty good and after three years I went out on my own,” he said.
He formed EverGreen Capital Management in 1989. Dream realized. As his business took off Green’s stature as a community leader grew with his stints on the Douglas County Board and, later, the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority, where he oversaw construction of the $300 million Qwest Center. He’s on the board of the Omaha Sports Commission, which under his watch successfully bid for such major amateur sports events, as the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.
The value-investing strategy he uses to select stocks is consistent with his credo for life. “You don’t get involved with anything that is outside your sphere of intelligence or comprehension. If I don’t understand it, I don’t invest in it. In investing, you just keep it simple.”
That same philosophy applies to his community service, particularly the north Omaha revitalization efforts he’s involved in.
The grassroots African American Empowerment Network he’s a part of has held a series of meetings to craft covenants and strategies that give blacks the means to improve their economic well being and overall quality of life.
“The Empowerment Network has done a good job of bringing together concerned citizens from all over the community to identify issues that if addressed would have a positive impact on the community,” he said. “Instead of complaining about what’s wrong we’re trying to see what we can do to make things better.”
Fundamental to the network is blacks being empowered to take action themselves.
“It’s self-determination,” Green said.
So is the public-private North Omaha Development Project he’s active in. It has major corporate players working in concert with black community leaders on committees that identify needs — from employment to enterprise zones to housing — and formulate action plans for meeting those needs. Unlike previous North O studies-plans, this Chamber-backed initiative has delegated responsibilities, timelines, deadlines and goals. “We have very powerful, committed people leading these committees who have the freedom to explore whatever solutions or make whatever recommendations they deem appropriate,” Green said. “The thing that’s different is that it not only has the support but the involvement of people from the north Omaha community who will be affected by it.”
Why is this concerted, comprehensive effort happening now? “It happens when it happens,” he said. “There are now more educated African Americans than I’ve ever known in this community and that alone equips this community to really find some positive solutions.” It appears a critical mass has been reached to foster change.
Green said finding ways to spur economic development on the north side is crucial and long overdue but will take time: “This whole process will be evolutionary and not revolutionary. This could be a generational endeavor. Do I have hope? Hell, yes.” Macro and micro approaches are needed.
“What we want to do, just like the city and state do, is provide economic incentives for businesses to locate and do business and bring employment to that area of town,” he said.
He said commercial-residential development has flourished everywhere except in Noth O. “It’s the hole in the donut,” he said” He blames negative perceptions that the area is dangerous and its residents unemployable for slowing progress.
“The challenge is to overcome that pervasive fear. It’s nothing more than rooted in racism,” said Green, who doesn’t deny that problems with crime, violence, truancy and unskilled labor exist. “The condition is simply this — poverty, unemployment, undereducation all lead to the kind of social conditions that exist in north Omaha and to stop the wheel from spinning in that direction you’re going to have to put a stake in somewhere. My frustration is that what’s not being explored is the very economic vitality that alleviates those social conditions.”
He challenges corporations to locate plants or offices there to “start creating jobs.” He said, “If you want to deal with crime start giving people the means and reasons not to go out and commit crime. You will give people the means to be consumers and investors.” He points to the rebirth of south Omaha, which not long ago was a depressed area and is now a vibrant commercial-residential-industrial district. He said the longer Omaha waits to act, North O’s ills will only spread.
Community service runs in the family, as his wife Carolyn Green is director of operations at Girls Inc. The couple’s only child, Angela Green, worked at Girls Inc. and is now a stay-at-home mom raising her two children.
Hard times in pre-Civil Rights era Omaha did not get the late Mary Davis down and her keep-on-keeping-on attitude served her and her four children well. The single black working mom raised her kids — Ricky, Dicky, Vicky and Micky — to be confident, do-for-yourself individuals who always put family first. Her second oldest, Dick Davis, has taken this approach to unimagined heights — first as an athlete, than as an educator and more recently as a corporate and community leader. Family has played a large part in his success.
His mom worked at packing plants and all kinds of jobs to support the family while dad went AWOL. “My dad was out of the home for the vast majority of our childhood and came back into our lives when I was 34,” he said.
Dick Davis and his wife Sharon Davis
Growing up in south Omaha and then north Omaha Davis moved several times with his family. In some cases the moves were to keep one step ahead of creditors. In other cases, mom was sick and out of work and the kids had to stay with grandma. It was all about “survival,” he said. “You try to find a home where you can.” He and Ricky both worked to help make ends meet. “Friday night was put your money on the table to see how we survive that week,” he said. All that moving around meant he attended four different elementary schools. As he learned first as a student and then as an educator in the inner city this high mobility pattern among disadvantaged kids puts them at risk for underachievement in the classroom.
As a youth he had “his challenges.” He was placed in the “slow” track in school. That affected his self-esteem, especially comparing himself to his big brother, Ricky, who excelled at everything. “I always thought I was a bit thick,” he said.
But his late brother, who died prematurely of pancreatic cancer at age 44, and his mother would not let him get down on himself. “He was unselfish in his commitment to make me as good as I could be,” he said of Ricky. “When you talk about sibling rivalry, there was none. He wanted the best for me.” Davis said he not only admired Ricky but had “strong love and affection” for him.
He recalled how a teacher once criticized in the presence of his mom, listing how he failed to measure up to Ricky. “Unmotivated, lazy, uninspired, dull. Every time he’d say something,” Davis said, “I shrunk in my seat a little bit more. When my mother and I left she said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘He was pretty tough.’ ‘Well, what do you think about yourself?’ I said, ‘I think I’m better than that.’ ‘Well, I think you are, too, son, so don’t worry about what other folks be thinking you gotta be doing. Worry about what you think you gotta be doing.’”
Davis was given the gift of unconditional love by his mother, who told him to not get caught up in comparisons. “She said, ‘I think every kid of mine has their unique talents and gifts, and Dick you just keep doing what you’re doing because your momma still loves you.’ And she had some very good, strong, capable kids.”
By the time he was 16, he said, “we had a stable family living situation.” He began doing better in school. Like his pal Mike Green, Davis’ athletic ability was spotted early onby Bob Rose at Horace Mann. Also by Don Benning, who coached at the north Y before coaching the wrestling team at then-Omaha U., where he developed champions. Benning saw Davis’ potential and worked with him to hone his raw talent. Once at North High Davis was dominant on the mat. For a good work out he’d go to UNO, where Benning had stiff competition for him in All-American George Crenshaw. Dick’s brother, Ricky, wrestled for Benning in college. Ricky also played football on the same teams Marlin Briscoe starred on and ran track at UNO.
Davis said his success in wrestling was the first time he got positive feedback from something he did. It told him, he said, “I am somebody. I’m a winner.” Those positive strokes prompted him “to try and get a little bit better” each day. He said the fact he was surrounded by so many great athletes in The Hood pushed him and others “to want to be better and better.” That ultra competitive environment, he said, may explain why North O owns such a rich history of sports legends.
But it was his attitude that made the difference in going from an average back to an All-American his senior year at North, when he rumbled for more than 10 yards a carry, and in going from a below par student to a high performer. Success, he’s learned, is a function of rigorous self-appraisal and self-motivation. It’s how he managed to make assistant principal at age 24 and principal before he was 30. It’s how he’s gone from one field of endeavor to another.
“It’s mindset, it’s expectations, it’s trying to figure out who you are and trying to do the best you can for who you are and not trying to be somebody else,” he said.
“There are some defining moments in your life. You need to assess who you are, what your abilities are and try to match those up the best you can to the opportunities out there.”
He said it’s vital to “recognize that where you come from doesn’t mean that’s where you’re going to end up.” He’s living proof, having come a long way from the projects and his early struggles in school to all his success. He’s done it by looking inward and applying what he’s learned to new situations.
“Knowledge and life experience is highly transferable,” he said. “Just think: I was an art guy, then a pro athlete, then an educator, then an administrator, then a corporate manager, and now an owner. The issue is there still are basic principles no matter what you do in life, so you just live by them.”
Academics and athletics became means to an end but, he said, if it hadn’t been for Nebraska giving him a football scholarship, he wouldn’t have been able to afford college. He’s sure he would have found a way to go anyway.
Always an independent thinker, Davis also has a creative side, so much so that he studied art in college, where he added a more practical major in education, which became his career once he was finished with pro football. He said he was “very analytical” in choosing education as something he could be successful at later. To ensure he graduated on time he loaded up on credits each summer.
“I was hugely focused,” he said. “I’ve always been an old soul in a young body. Now I’m finally caught up to myself.”
While at NU he supplied caricatures of Husker coaches for the 1968 football brochure. He was an All Big 8 performer on the field in ‘67, when he was also named to the all-conference and national scholastic squads. He graduated in ‘69.
Drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, he also spent time with the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints. His pro career was no great shakes but he did satisfy himself he was “good enough to play at that level.” Like Mike Green, Davis was turned off by the cold, hard reality of seeint veterans who were “gifted athletes,” like ex-Huskers Wayne Meylan and Walt Barnes, ruthlessly cut. He began plotting his post-football life after doing some research and finding that, statistically, he was unlikely to last the minimum five years in the league to qualify for a pension. Even if he did, an NFL vet’s life expectancy then was 55 — the age the pension kicked in.
“The numbers didn’t add up,” he said.
Once he left the game he never looked back. Back home, he began his 10-year career with the Omaha Public Schools, first as an art teacher, than as assistant principal at his alma mater, North, and finally as principal at McMillan Junior High, where he and his mentor, Don Benning, would wrestle on their lunch break to saty in shape. At the time, McMillan was the largest junior high in Nebraska, with some 1,400 kids crammed into a building meant for 1,000. Adding to the tension that comes with overcrowding and the angst that attends adolescence was the school’s transition from a largely white student base to a predominantly black student base. Somehow Davis and his staff made it work.
“We were basically making a difference and you could see the difference. We affected change in terms of student achievement, the school culture, parental involvement. True results,” he said. “It absolutely turned me on to know we were impacting people’s lives.”
He said his success got him thinking, “If I can do this here, why can’t I do it district-wide?” He prepared by earning his master’s from UNO and his doctorate from NU. But when he made known his desire to one day be OPS superintendent he was paternalistically told he was best suited to stay at McMillan. Davis said institutions like OPS historically profile black employees as having “great people skills,” which usually confines them to teaching, principal, human resources, public relations, disciplinary positions but denies them access to the more technical finance-administrative posts required for the superintendent track.
Not seeing an opportunity to go that direction, he left to join Northern Plains Natural Gas Co. (Enron). He held out the possibility of returning but found his niche in business. “Well, life moves forward. I never went back,” he said. Still, he said, “education was the most challenging and rewarding of all the things I’ve done in my life. I’m still a teacher, just by nature, so I approach things in that way. If you look at my business-entrepreneurial career, you will see strong educational components to everything I do, because that’s my thing. Education is my thing.”
At Enron he did risk management and strategic planning but found the proverbial glass ceiling. “No question about that,” he said. But his not rising to the top, he said, had as much to do with his skills set not being the right fit for a company that was basically “nothing but accountants and engineers.” That was especially true when Enron decided “to just do piping,” which in their eyes made expendable several auxiliary companies that began as spinoffs from Northern Plains. Where Enron saw excess, Davis saw “a fabulous opportunity that could be grown.”
He went to the higher-ups to ask if he could take those auxiliary companies off their hands — scott free. To his surprise, he said, he was told yes. Davis got the suits to put it in writing and those businesses now form the core of his Davis Cos.
“Don’t you love America?” said Davis, letting loose his big booming laugh.
The Davis family has been integral to his company’s success. Wife Sharon served as president of Davis Insurance Co., which his brother Ricky founded and his mother and brother Micky joined. His daughter-in-law Lisa Davis is the Davis Cos. controller and soon-to-be CEO. Davis hopes his and his family’s success demonstrates how much is possible when we don’t place limits on ourselves.
“I believe I am an ordinary person doing extraordinary things,” he said.
The Davis story exemplifies a pay-it-forward philosophy that can work on a larger scal. He said the investment he and his wife have made in their children, Dick II and Shaynel, and in other loved ones is helping this next generation realize their dreams and control their destinies. He wants to see more black families move into financial independence and entrepreneurship so they too can invest in their future and in the future of their community.
He feels if he and other successful African Americans can get people to buy into that model than the resulting assets can accrue to the entire black community and pay dividends for generations.
“If by sharing my experiences I can inspire folks who do not believe to believe than I think that’s a good thing. That’s what we should be all about. If you can change the expectations of folks and allow them to dream, you’ve affected life very personally and that makes me feel good. If we can spread the spirit of don’t despair, I think we can move mountains.”
The slogan of the North Omaha Foundation for Human Development he founded in 1980 is, We believe in people. But Davis is about more than slogans. He’s about action. That’s why the foundation — a partnership with OPS — awards grants to youth programs and services. The Davis-Chambers Scholarship, named for Davis family members and for state Sen. Ernie Chambers, has been awarding minority students scholarships since 1989. To date, the public-private fund has given out more than $3 million for students’ higher education. He’s working on plans to grow the fund and the number of scholarships it offers.
New North Downtown headquarters for Davis Cos.
His Omaha 20/20 initiative is an economic development catalyst aimed at helping blacks achieve full employment in jobs that lead to careers that, in turn, create entrepreneurs and investors. The alliance partners with many of the same players in the African American Empowerment Network, whose economic and education committees he chairs, and shares the same self-empowering goals. He’s also participating in the North Omaha Development Project and Building Bright Futures. All these initiatives share a common goal of impacting the whole community.
“A rising tide raises all ships — that’s the approach we’re taking.”
Davis said everyone has a role in helping bring about needed change. “My gift is that I can bring people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. I can also give some money, raise some funds, provide some scholarships and spur some economic development. I go to white folks and black folks and say, ‘Here’s how I’m stepping up. Tell me how you’re going to step up.’ That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it.” People are providing expertise and much more.
He said the fact that people from across the entire socioeconomic-racial-religious-political spectrum are stepping up to assume “shared responsibility and accountability is what makes it feel different” than past efforts.
Davis, who mentors youth, said that “in my first conversation with every young person I always say, ‘Do you truly understand that before you take your first step, you need to know what your 10th step is? Because if you don’t know…you’re going to have a problem getting there and you’re going to get there longer and your goal might not be there when you get there.’”
That same deliberate, forward-thinking vision is required, he said, if north Omaha and the black community are to seize this moment and this opportunity in history.
Dick Davis, like his good friend, Mike Green, said he intends to visualize and follow through those steps for success in order “to make a difference.”
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