Jerry and Judy Davis have worked hard their entire lives. They have ventured forth with successful businesses, solid investments and even a stint as NASCAR team owners. Through it all, altruistic spirit and philanthropic activities defined them. A lavish lifestyle did not.“We still live in the same house we bought 25 years ago,” Davis says. “We have a very moderate lifestyle, and we’ve given away 50 times more money than we’ll ever spend ourselves. That’s just the way we are.”
UF, the College of Medicine and the residents of Florida are lucky the Davises are built this way. This year, the Jacksonville couple made a $21 million gift to the UF Shands Cancer Center to advance research efforts and patient-care initiatives. The College of Medicine received $20 million to create the Jerry W. and Judith S. Davis Cancer Endowment, the largest single gift made to the college. It will be used to support teaching, research and programs in cancer. Shands HealthCare also received $1 million for its Raising Hope Campaign to support construction of the $388 million Shands Cancer Hospital at UF slated to open in November.
The Davises know too well the toll cancer can take on an individual and a family. They each have battled the disease. In fact, Jerry Davis has fought not one, but four bouts of cancer, and Judy Davis was treated for breast cancer 20 years ago. Their intimate understanding of the cancer experience may be why they choose to support cancer research, but it isn’t why they give.
“Jerry and Judy are very special people,” said Jay Lynch, MD, a UF professor of hematology/oncology who treated Jerry Davis and has become his good friend. “They have a deep desire to give back, and because both of them have been touched by cancer, they have a first-hand sense of what it means to have access to state-of-the-art care. They want to make sure that kind of care is available to everyone in Florida.”
From an early age, Jerry Davis learned the value of an honest day’s work. He was born and raised in Jacksonville and was 6 when he got his first paper route. He spent summers at his aunts and uncles’ farms in South Georgia. Just barely big enough to see over the steering wheel of a car, the young Davis would drive the tractors, pick cotton or tobacco, and even string the tobacco out to dry.
“My dad was a taxicab driver, and he was a tough guy,” Davis says. “He made us work and he taught us to tithe to the church and be responsible people.”
Davis’ father may have been his first influence, but he says he learned the power of generosity from his wife, Judy.
“My wife is a giver, and she has taught me and the whole family how to give back to the community and to those who are in need.”
Judy Davis was raised in the hills of northern Tennessee in Oneida, a rural town where the median household income is well below the state average. Her father was a school superintendent who cared for the disadvantaged children in his district as if they were his own, Davis says.
The couple met in 1965 and married two years later. Jerry Davis, a 1968 graduate of the UF College of Journalism and Communications, began an information technology company in Jacksonville, and they raised two sons, Troy and Jerry Jr.
Davis sold his company shortly after being treated for lymphoma for the second time. Not too long after, he purchased a 2,500-acre farm in northwest Florida and “turned from software and services to agriculture and hunting.”
The couple now divides their time between the farm and their home in Jacksonville, where they are able to enjoy watching their grandchildren grow. They also keep close ties to Judy’s home state, where there are approximately 80 students attending Tennessee Tech University thanks to the Davises. The couple supports scholarships for graduates from Judy’s high school in Oneida who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to attend college.
They’ve also purchased equipment for the nursing school at the university because the need for nurses in northern Tennessee is so great, and they funded the construction of a 21st-century classroom to effectively train teachers to use today’s technology.
“Giving of their time and their financial blessings is a way of life for them,” Lynch says. “Through the eyes of their faith, they see themselves as stewards of their success.”
Investing in Hope
The Davises first helped jumpstart UF’s cancer program in 1998 with a $5 million gift that was matched by the state. The $10 million endowment was used to recruit world-class scientists and expand the research programs at the college. The outpatient component of the UFSCC was named the Jerry W. and Judith S. Davis Cancer Pavilion in recognition of their support.
“Hopefully we can turn cancer into a chronic disease rather than the killer that it is,” he says. “Rather than somebody surviving for just four or five years, they can survive 20 to 25 years.
“And we wanted to invest in an institution that is going to reward the people they serve,” Davis continues. “The people we have come to know at the University of Florida are very good people who are committed to the research that they do, and they are committed to their students.
“Those who choose academic medicine are special people,” Davis says. “They want to teach. They want to do research, and they want to treat patients. That combination is powerful and benefits every patient who walks in the door.”
Jerry Davis jokes that he has become the “referral guy” in Jacksonville for many who are newly diagnosed with cancer.
“I get two or three calls a week from people who know me from my church or through business,” he explains. “I tell them Shands and UF are on the leading edge of treatment, and the new cancer hospital is just going to make them stronger.
“Hope is not lost” he tells them. “Just make sure you go the right place.”