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President Davila surprised by reception by KDES community

On November 17, President Davila reported to the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) for a meeting, only to discover a surprise awaiting him. Under the guise of “showing him something downstairs,” Edward Bosso, dean of the Clerc Center, led Davila to the main level of the building, where two long lines of students, teachers, and staff awaited the president.

As Davila worked the line on both sides of the corridor, a sea of hands reached out to him for high fives and handshakes. The KDES community then gathered in the auditorium for a tribute honoring Davila’s many years of service. He told the students, “This school is very special to me … you know, I used to be the boss here when I was vice-president of Pre-College Programs…. I love to see how the lives of deaf people are changing and becoming more and more successful.” The students gave Davila a poster signed by all of them, which he said he would frame and display it in his home.

Following the KDES gathering, Davila was whisked away by Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) Student Body Government officers Chad Willman and Martha Wolcott for tributes from MSSD students, teachers, and staff. Davila greeted each of the students as they entered MSSD’s Theatre Malz for the assembly and told the audience, “There is no place in the world like Kendall Green.”

The retirement celebration wrapped up with a reception in the Star Gallery amid posters created by MSSD students featuring a smiling Davila, still in business attire, in various tropical locales and against a background of famous buildings and landmarks at Gallaudet and in Washington, D.C.

These were the first of several community tributes that recognized Dr. Davila as an exemplary president who in just three years helped transform Gallaudet by uniting the campus community, piloting a plan that regained its academic standing, and putting in motion a strategy for its continued success.

Campus Tribute

An event honoring Davila and his wife, Donna, was held in the ballroom of the Kellogg Conference Hotel on November 19, hosted by the Student Body Government (SBG), the Graduate Student Association (GSA), the Faculty Senate, and the Staff Advisory Council. The tribute began with an uplifting film created by Bison TV Productions that depicted a wide array of individuals from the campus community expressing gratitude to Gallaudet’s ninth president for all that he has done for the University during his tenure. Then, representatives from each of the hosting groups came forward to talk about the highlights of Dr. Davila’s efforts to benefit their specific constituency, and the University overall.

SBG President Zachary Ennis said that when he began attending Gallaudet, he “felt a lot of negativity in the air,” but thanks to Davila’s leadership, he has seen campus morale improve greatly. He listed the reaffirmation of the University’s accreditation, an increase in enrollment, and improved student retention as examples of great advances made during Davila’s tenure.

GSA President Concetta Pucci recalled that when Davila began his presidency, he remarked, “I am back home again.” This very personal reference to Gallaudet as being far more meaningful than merely a place to learn or to work “stuck with me,” she said. “He made Gallaudet ‘Team Gallaudet’ and we will continue working together as a family. He instilled that, and it’s inspiring.” Pucci also commended Davila for his “Bob’s Vlog” series as a highly effective way to keep the campus informed about important issues, and his work on the Gallaudet University Strategic Plan.

Davila praised for encouraging unity

Faculty Senate Chair Mark Weinberg praised Davila for reuniting a deeply divided faculty. He also said that Davila’s strong guidance was instrumental in the University quickly and efficiently adopting a new undergraduate curriculum. This was a major accomplishment for Gallaudet, said Weinberg, and one that led to a better relationship with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and an improved campus climate. “It clearly helped our institution survive and grow,” he said.

Edgar Palmer, who represented the Staff Advisory Council, credited Davila for being “not a man of many words but many actions.” Thanks to Davila, Gallaudet took on an ambitious diversity incentive that has benefited students of varying backgrounds. Scholarship funding increased, retention and graduation rates for minority students dramatically improved, and the Office of Diversity and Equity for Students and its Keeping the Promise program was established.

What’s more, said Palmer, Davila reached out to campus diversity organizations, appointed a person of color to his management team, named a vice provost for diversity and equity for students, established the Ombuds Office, beefed up the athletics program, and strengthened the Staff Advisory Council. Last but not least, he joked, Davila reopened the gates on West Virginia Avenue, shaving off a few precious minutes of travel time for commuters.

Davila responds to the praise with humility

Davila demurred to the praise, saying that it made him “feel like a famous person who changes his clothes in a phone booth.” Rejecting that superhero image, Davila gave credit to the great advances the University has made under his leadership to the very people who filled the room.

“It was a team job, and every person on campus rose to the occasion. We had to save the University, to reinvent it,” he said. Davila then spoke of the important role that Gallaudet has played in his life. “If not for Gallaudet, I might still be picking fruit in California,” he said, referring to his childhood in that state, the son of migrant farm workers. “Gallaudet afforded me a perspective on life I didn’t know existed,” he said.

Davila emphasized his commitment “to serving our students better than just good but with great enthusiasm.” He promised that in retirement he would maintain a balance between leisure pursuits and service to the deaf community. He also gave heartfelt thanks to his wife, saying that she “shares my enthusiasm” about Gallaudet.

The Davilas were presented a parting gift to enjoy in their retirement–a large screen television. “Holy smokes, this is wonderful!” exclaimed Davila. “I was thinking of taking one from House One; I guess now I won’t need to!” he quipped, adding that in January the new tenants of the house, Dr. Alan Hurwitz and his wife, Vicki, can enjoy them.

Gala at Union Station

The final formal tribute came December 5, when over 650 members of the Gallaudet community and friends attended a black tie tribute gala at the East Hall in Union Station. Attendees were treated to remarks by revered leaders of the deaf community who shared an admiration for Davila.

Award-winning actor, author, activist, and Gallaudet Trustee Marlee Matlin had a few words about authenticity. “As an actor, I can tell when someone is putting on an act,” she said. “You are the real thing. You are as good as they come.”

Actor Bernard Bragg, Davila’s college roommate and himself an award-winner and legend, recalled a poignant moment. Bragg, Davila, and Mrs. Davila were driving together once many years ago when they hit an oil slick. They swerved wildly, but with Robert Davila behind the wheel, the passengers were safe. Davila handled Gallaudet in much the same way during his presidency, Bragg said, staying calm and taking control.

That confident hand inspired many to give to Gallaudet in honor of Dr. Davila. The Office of Development reported that donors contributed more than $135,000 in his name leading up to the gala. James Lee Sorenson, a major benefactor of Gallaudet, was the presenting sponsor for the event. The Delta Zeta Foundation and the Gallaudet University Alumni Association made leadership gifts in tribute of Dr. Davila. Numerous other alumni and friends of Gallaudet also gave.

Gallaudet talent dazzles audience

As the entertainment continued that night, Gallaudet talent shined brightly. The evening program opened with a performance of the song “Hero” by Mariah Carey, delivered in flowing interpretive American Sign Language (ASL) by the Gallaudet Dance Company. April Jackson, a current student, performed an ASL poem in Davila’s honor, and the Wild Zappers, an all-deaf dance group established by Gallaudet alumni, electrified the stage.

Academic Technology’s Video Services showed a film about Davila’s life and work that left few dry eyes. Finally, Gallaudet University Alumni Association President Alyce Slater Reynolds unveiled an enduring tribute to the University’s ninth president–a portrait by renowned artist and alumnus William Sparks. The portrait will take its place among other presidents’ in Chapel Hall in the next year.

Davila’s delight at the tribute to his service was clear as the program came to a close. “This beats anything,” he said. “It’s more than I could ever have imagined.”

Contributors to this article include Todd Byrd, Susan Flanigan, Roz Prickett, Darlene Prickett, Rhea Yablon Kennedy, and Doris Parent.

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