Rodney O. Davis was one of the most important Abraham Lincoln scholars in America.
Davis, who passed away November of last year, started his career at Knox in 1963 as a professor of American History and taught for 34 years. After his retirement in 1997, Davis teamed up with his colleague, Douglas Wilson, to found the Lincoln Studies Center. Together, Davis and Wilson wrote three books, two of which are published and one of which is soon to be published.
Davis and Wilson transcribed and annotated the Library of Congress’s Abraham Lincoln Papers when they were put on the library’s website and studied William Henry Herndon’s writings about Lincoln. Their books are composed of Herndon’s writings and lectures on Lincoln. Because of their Lincoln scholarship, Wilson and Davis became laureates of the Order of Lincoln.
Outside of his fantastic scholarship, Davis’s colleagues remember him as a kind, smart and gentle man. Wilson recalled the countless hours he spent working with Davis, both as professors and once they had founded the Lincoln Studies Center.
Wilson and Davis founded the American Studies major at Knox College and worked on several classes focusing specifically on the Midwest. Together, they taught these courses for 25 years. Wilson was always blown away by what a wonderful teacher Davis was.
“He was just a naturally-born, brilliant teacher, and it looked all effortless. The way he taught looked like it wouldn’t be any other way,” Wilson said.
Wilson was always blown away by Davis’s remarkable memory. He recalls asking Davis what year a specific course was taught and who was in it and, without fail, Davis was always able to recall the year and read through a mental roster of everyone in it. The final course they taught together focused on Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
Owen Muelder met Davis when he came to work at Knox in 1968. His favorite memory of Davis is how supportive he was when Muelder decided to leave his administrative position to become the Director of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Muelder will always remember how supportive and encouraging Davis was when it came to any of his professional pursuits.
Muelder was always impressed with Davis’s ability to tie his vast knowledge of history to present times and was struck by Davis’s willingness to include him in conversations with other well known historians. Muelder has fond memories of being invited to join Davis at his home whenever a history scholar was visiting Knox.
Both Muelder and Wilson can not help but think of Davis’s students when they remember him. Countless students shared how much they enjoyed Davis’s classes and Davis himself.
Davis will always be remembered, broadly, as a brilliant Lincoln scholar, but his legacy at Knox goes deeper than that. Here, Rodney O. Davis will be remembered for his gentle nature and encouragement as a friend and as a beloved American History professor.
“Rod Davis was one of the kindest and most decent individuals I’ve ever known,” Muelder said. “He possessed a calm demeanor, was fair-minded and was regarded as a superior scholar by fellow historians. He could be forthright defending his convictions but was always willing to be open and tolerant of different points of view.”