Theodore Z. Davis

Perseverantia vincit. Perseverance conquers. It’s Temple’s motto, and Trustee Theodore Z. Davis is proof that it’s true.

As a Camden high school student in the late 1940s, Davis never thought about going to college.

“I hadn’t even heard of Temple,” he recalled. “In those days, no one counseled African Americans about going to college. I was a skinny little thing and couldn’t get a laborer’s job.”

The parents of a classmate, both of whom were teachers, told Davis about Temple and that he should try to get in. He came to campus in July, passed the entrance exam and became an accounting major.

After earning his degree, Davis could not get an interview with even one accounting firm. Without two years working in the field, he couldn’t become a certified public accountant, so he worked as an agent for the IRS. Fellow alumnus and later prominent lawyer Charles W. Bowser suggested that Davis attend the Law School, and he took classes at night while working for the IRS during the day.

In one first-year law class, the professor selected Davis to present the plaintiff’s side of the case by calling out, “Colored boy. Stand up.” As soon as Davis finished his presentation and sat down, the professor repeated the insult, asking Davis to present the defendant’s arguments.

“The putdowns were disconcerting, but I wouldn’t let them get the better of me,” Davis said. “I was grateful to Temple, even though I got socked once in a while from a racial point of view.”

A nine-month clerkship was required for full admission to the New Jersey Bar, but no firm in New Jersey would hire Davis. He finally was hired by the Camden City Attorney’s Office and petitioned the state Supreme Court — successfully — to allow his work as assistant city attorney to count as his clerkship.

Years later, that same law professor who insulted Davis visited Davis’ private office to offer an adjunct instructor position at the Law School. Davis eventually became president of Temple’s General Alumni Association. He has been a trustee since 1991 and is vice chairman of the budget and finance committee.

Retired from a career that included stints as a judge on New Jersey’s superior court and its chancery division, chairman of the Garden State’s Supreme Court Task Force on Minority Concerns, chairman of the board of Bar examiners and seven years as an adjunct instructor at Temple’s Law School, Davis proudly refers to Temple as “a United Nations on Broad Street. Kids today gravitate to what Temple offers — a chance to learn with people from all kinds of backgrounds.”

He also applauds the heightened academic discipline and expectations of today’s Temple.
“I think a lot of people have misread the Conwellian tradition,” he explained. “When Conwell started Temple, it was about giving an opportunity to qualified students who couldn’t afford the expenses of most colleges. There’s nothing in the Conwellian mission that said, ‘If you’re not qualified we’ll take you in and educate you.’”

But if you are qualified, victory awaits those who persevere. Whatever their background. Just ask the Honorable Theodore Z. Davis.

- By Mark Eyerly

2004 Temple Times