Posted: Oct. 22, 2006
THE LAST BANQUET
By Celia Cohen
There are many ways to lay a man to rest, some more appropriate than others, but the one late Sunday afternoon for a Delawarean called Ned had to be nearly perfect.
It was a farewell for Edward R. "Ned" Davis, a cherished counselor to the state's official class and an artful practitioner of the First Amendment right to petition the government and get the government to do what he wanted -- in short, the epitome of a lobbyist.
Davis persevered at his trade until he died Wednesday at 78 at home in Dover, even though in his last years his condition failed so much that his only pretense to health was his healthy lack of it.
As one of the best, he was the most sociable of beings, in his element in the hideaways of Legislative Hall, the political receptions, the back-room card games and the early-morning duck blinds, so there was no sense having a memorial service for him in rigid and somber church pews.
Ned Davis was remembered at Dover Downs, where the life is, where there are harness races and slot machines, good food and strong drink and who-knows-what sorts of liaisons in the rooms upstairs, all of which would have pleased him immensely in a place he helped to create as a longtime confidant to the Rollins family.
The memorial service was in the ballroom, and much to everyone's surprise, it was set up and run like a political banquet, a brainstorm credited to the ever-resourceful Denis McGlynn, the chief executive officer. People entered to an open bar and round tables set up for 500. Nearly every seat was filled for ceremonies that lasted an hour and a half, and then it was time to get some supper from a buffet.
"Ned wanted something like a party," Michele M. Rollins said.
The attendance was heavy with Legislative Hall regulars, led by state Sen. Thurman G. Adams Jr., the Democratic president pro tem, and state Rep. Terry R. Spence, the Republican speaker. Even the deacon who presided was Weston E. "Pete" Nellius, a onetime secretary of finance.
There were lawmakers, lobbyists, staffers, judges and leaders from both political parties. Davis was a Democrat, a press secretary for Democratic Gov. Charles L. Terry Jr. in the 1960s and a national committeeman for most of the 1970s and 1980s, but a vote is a vote for a lobbyist, so he was adept at courting Republicans, too.
The politicking and the poetry-quoting that Davis loved so much were the order of the day. The political stories were mostly funny ones, but the poetry reflected the suffering that imprisoned Davis in his later years, leaving him as William Butler Yeats, a favorite poet, wrote, "I have nothing but the embittered sun/Banished heroic mother moon and vanished."
The eulogists all were Democrats, and it was a measure of Davis that they were U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Chief Justice Myron T. Steele and Chief Magistrate Alan G. Davis, his great nephew. As accomplished as they were, all confessed to a certain trepidation in speaking about Ned Davis, a grand master of the written word.
"I have one regret. He didn't write the eulogy for me," Biden said.
Biden called Davis "noble," and Steele, who was a 25-year-old deputy attorney general when he met Davis in a goose blind, said he was "the last of the senior men who taught me how to be a man."
It fell to Alan Davis to speak for the family members, and he told some of their favorite stories, but not until apologizing, "I am not the eulogist of the Davis family. That honor lies with the man we say good-bye to."
There was a story about the young Ned Davis, dismissed from his job as a busboy in the 1940s at the Wilmington Country Club by the maitre d' for flirting with a young woman who came to lunch with her mother. Some days later a dejected Davis still had not found another job and was standing along a Wilmington street when a long, dark car rolled up.
It was Gov. Elbert N. Carvel, who knew Davis well because they both were from Laurel. The Democratic governor asked what was wrong, and Davis said he was out of work. "I can't offer you a job, but I can offer you lunch. Jump in," Carvel said.
Carvel collected a distinguished guest, and off they went to the Wilmington Country Club. "The same maitre d' had to seat the governor, the bishop of the Episcopal diocese and his disgraced busboy," Alan Davis said.
There was also a story about a lobbying client who declined to give Ned Davis a raise, observing that he did not seem to be doing anything. Davis let the contract go and went to work for the other side, quickly accomplishing what the original client had not wanted to see accomplished.
"That first group learned that Ned did work. It just looked like recreation," Alan Davis said.
As the moment came to close, Alan Davis mourned the way Ned Davis' ailments had diminished him. "He became what his beloved Yeats would call 'a tattered coat upon a stick,'" he said, his voice catching.
"Ned was Ned was Ned was Ned," Alan Davis said. He ended with Ned's own words, the ones he used a long time ago in a eulogy for Gov. Terry.
"Good-bye, old man, you were something else."