May 19, 2011 - Claremont, Calif. - A memorial service for Nathaniel Davis will be held in the Kingman Chapel at Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 West Harrison Avenue, Claremont, Calif., on Saturday, June 18th, at 2:00 p.m. The family suggests that in lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to Harvey Mudd College, Office of College Advancement, 301 Platt Blvd., Claremont, CA 91711.
The Harvey Mudd College community was saddened to learn of the death this week of Professor Emeritus of Political Science Nathaniel Davis.
Davis joined the ranks of the HMC faculty as the first Alexander and Adelaide Hixon Professor of Humanities in 1983, after a distinguished career in the Foreign Service. He held posts in Czechoslovakia, Italy and the Soviet Union, and served as a U.S. ambassador to several countries including Guatemala, Chile and Switzerland
“Nat brought spectacular insight into world politics to HMC and shared this with students in his classes,” said Dean of Faculty Bob Cave “His classes were highly sought after by students and they benefited both from his knowledge and kindness. In faculty meetings he was particularly adept at seeing the heart of an issue and offering wise counsel. He retired from the faculty in 2002. He continued to attend
campus events and had a wonderful way of encouraging those whom he met—he will be missed.”
Davis began his Foreign Service career with an assignment in Prague in 1947, where he witnessed the Communist takeover of power less than a year later. He went on to four appointments as ambassador to Bulgaria, Guatemala, Chile and Switzerland. He served in two positions at the assistant secretary level as Director General of the Foreign Service and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. He was ambassador in Chile during the presidency of Salvador Allende and through the coup that deposed him. Davis wrote a history of that period called The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende (Cornell University Press, 1985).
“Finding Nat Davis to become HMC's first Hixon Professor was one of the luckiest appointments I made during my years as dean of faculty,” said Professor Emeritus of Engineering Sam Tanenbaum. “The Hixons were hoping to fill the chair with a senior person who had extensive real-world experience in international relations along with solid academic credentials. We had run a conventional search for a few months and were starting to invite the most promising candidates to campus when I was asked to be an usher at the second wedding of a classmate from Brown. One of the other ushers was the Chair of Political Science at Brown, and I mentioned our search to him. He immediately suggested that I contact Nat, who was teaching at the Naval War College in Newport. I called him, and within about two weeks he visited campus, gave an amazing seminar and was offered the Hixon Chair.
“Alexander and Adelaide Hixon were delighted with our choice, and Nat's classes quickly became among the most popular in Claremont,” said Tanenbaum. “An added bonus was his summer trips with students to Russia where they could tour and meet with many top officials who were Nat's personal friends.”
A former student of Davis’, Glen Hastings ’93, recalled what it was like to have Davis as a professor. “At Harvey Mudd College one expects the math, science and engineering faculty to be scary smart, but Harvey Mudd’s mission extends beyond the sciences to educate its graduates to be well versed in the humanities and social sciences, and no one embodied that quality more than Nathaniel Davis,” Hastings said. “As a professor, Nat was unassuming about his experiences with Kennedy, Johnson, Khrushchev and countless other leaders, but he leveraged these stories to really make history come alive and to help us understand the complexities and nuances of geopolitics. Non-technical classes are sometimes stereotyped as easy, but no student who ever took one of Professor Davis’s classes would have called them easy. He expected students to think and to think clearly; it was never about a right or wrong answer—he would not advance a particular point of view—it was about the quality of the answer. I do not think there are any other classes in which I eagerly worked so hard. I never achieved an A from Nat (I know of only one person during my time who got an A), but I was immensely proud of that A-.”
Nathaniel Davis was born in Cambridge, Mass., on April 12, 1925. His father, Harvey Nathaniel Davis, taught at Harvard University and his mother, Alice Rohde Davis, was a research medical doctor. In 1928, the family moved to the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., where Harvey Davis was president. Nathaniel Davis attended the Stevens Hoboken Academy and graduated from Philips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, N.H., in 1942. He attended Brown University where he served in the Navy Reserve. He received his degree and commission as ensign in the Navy in September 1944, but as a member of the Class of 1946. He was on active duty on the U.S.S. Lake Champlain until 1946. Upon return, he attained a master’s and then Ph.D. in 1960 from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Davis married Elizabeth Kirkbride Creese in 1956 upon his return from a position in Moscow, Russia. During the years of 1956-1960, he was Desk Officer and Deputy Officer in Charge of Soviet Affairs at the Department of State. His next assignments were in Caracas, Venezuela, and the Peace Corps in Washington DC, where he was Special Assistant to the Director and later Deputy Director for Program Development and Operations. After his ambassadorship in Bulgaria, he served on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House, where he was responsible for Soviet and East European matters as well as the United Nations.
In 1968, he went to Guatemala as ambassador, and in 1971 to Chile. He returned to the State Department in 1973, where he was Director General and then Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. Davis resigned from the latter post over a policy disagreement with then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, regarding covert action in Angola. Davis was subsequently appointed ambassador to Switzerland.
In 1977, Davis moved with his family, which included by then four children, to Newport, R.I., where he taught at the Naval War College for six years as Diplomat in Residence. In 1983, he resigned from the Foreign Service and accepted a position as the Alexander and Adelaide Hixon Professor of Humanities at HMC, where he taught until retirement in 2002, at age 77. During his time at Harvey Mudd College, he wrote a book, using research he had been working on since 1947, called A Long Walk to Church: a Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy. He wrote a second edition of the book in 2003.
Davis was a skier and had awards and accomplishments in white water canoeing and mountain climbing, most notable of which was a “first ascent” of Mount Abanico in the Venezuelan Andes with George Band, a member of the team that first successfully climbed Mt. Everest. He also was a political activist, starting in the 1960s in the civil rights movement. He held positions throughout his life in the Democratic Party, both in California and nationally.
He is survived by his wife and four children, Margaret Davis Mainardi of Boonton Township, N.J., Helen Miller Davis of Los Angeles, Calif., James Creese Davis of Barrington, R.I., and Thomas Rohde Davis of Boston, Mass., as well as eight grandchildren, two great granddaughters and two sisters.
A memorial service for Nathaniel Davis will be held in the Kingman Chapel at Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 West Harrison Avenue, Claremont, Calif., on Saturday, June 18th, at 2:00 p.m. The family suggests that in lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to Harvey Mudd College, Office of College Advancement, 301 Platt Blvd., Claremont, CA 91711.
Media Contact: Judy Augsburger