Words of wisdom from the late, esteemed Otto Davis

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Ask Ralph Waldo Emerson and he will tell you, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius.” The thought here is an understanding of the existence of a potential good which emanates from every man. It is within each and every person to strive, achieve, and pursue micro- and macro-based improvement. Thus, the universality of a common effort towards development and betterment is born.

It is within these constructs that one can see the motivation toward progressing and upgrading one’s surroundings. This improvement can hark upon one’s words and often harks upon those words alone. To be based on speech alone is all too common. That is why, when a talent comes along that brings such thoughts into fruition, it leaves its mark securely upon the world in which it existed. Otto “Toby” Davis was one such man I have encountered in my life.

Otto Davis died on May 9; he was 72 years old. Davis had taught at Carnegie Mellon since the 1960s, bringing with him a sense of interdisciplinary cooperation and expansive thought. Among his considerable legacies were his roles as a founder and later as the second dean of the School of Urban and Public Affairs. Those of you reading might be more familiar with this institution’s contemporary name, the Heinz School. But the legacy alone does not characterize Davis properly.

He was a can-do man in the spirit of this great can-do nation. It was an honor to meet Davis during my first two years here at Carnegie Mellon. He was my advisor for the policy and management major in the social and decision sciences department. Always with a sharp wit and a clever story to tell, he delivered sage advice and an understanding of that which is important, and that which is just process.

The genius lies in Davis’ understanding that one man moving steadfastly against a tide of apathy can still make a difference. This was how he pursued his goals, even in light of the apathy, and often negative energy, that surrounded him. This was especially the case as he went about pursuing public policy changes here in Pittsburgh throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

I remember seeking his advice concerning my major requirements one placid afternoon in his office. Instead of dealing with any of those issues, we ended up in a multi-hour discussion concerning the severity of the mill closings on Pittsburgh and its subsequent lack of development. This contemporary parable sticks with me to this day as a real-life example of progress through devotion.

During our conversation, Davis took only one quick aside to acknowledge his deteriorating condition, in which he explained to me his need to seek health asylum in order to continue pursuing his work. Having moved past that prerequisite acknowledgement, he launched straight into one of the classic examples concerning the importance of effecting change, even when it seems impossible.

Davis told me about a period of Pittsburgh history when, as the mills closed, the city floundered. He told me of a labor policy that said if a man’s age plus his number of years on a job reached a certain threshold, the man was eligible for a full pension for the rest of his life (which I believe at the time was 80 percent pay). Even in the midst of the desperation occurring citywide, when raw materials proved too costly to bring into Pittsburgh, Davis saw an opportunity to improve the city from the raw resources within.

The resources he saw were the people of Pittsburgh. With the help of an acquaintance he launched a start-up company designed to aid burgeoning entrepreneurs. The theory was that men already backed up with unconditional full pensions would prove to be apt risk takers, especially with such a large safety net to fall back upon. Certainly, those with the least to lose would wager with something so large to gain.

However, this theory proved untrue. Davis explained to me that he found out that many were just not willing to take any more risks and put in the time and effort needed in order to pursue a larger goal. It is this very idea of comfort leading to apathy that he reiterated in his meeting with me. The lesson of wasted opportunity is one that cannot be easily forgotten.

To choose this anecdote to pay tribute to Davis may seem a tad bit odd at first glance. Yet the underlying principle found in that story is that one’s inspiration has to come from within, as achievement is rarely derived from circumstances alone. His example of those in a position to succeed failing to have the motivation to do so should serve as a poignant lesson for all to follow. Drawing it from within oneself, the motivation to succeed must be extracted and utilized.

For those who wish to pay their respects, the time has come. According to the Heinz School website, “A service to honor the research, academic, and humanitarian contributions of Otto Anderson Davis (Toby), will be held on Saturday, September 16 at 3:30 p.m. in the University Center, McConomy Auditorium, with a reception to follow in the Schatz Dining Room.” Instead of intending to, do. See you there.