This article first appeared in the February 1982 issue of "Now in the North." By Steve Lay
Neil Davis hasn't always been excited by science and never dreamed it would become his life's work. Education was of little interest during his adolescence.
"Actually I dropped out of high school right after my sophomore year and decided I wanted to be a mechanic. I got a job with Wien Airlines in the engine shop as an apprentice engine mechanic. I was only 15 at the time, so I was too young to sign off on the engines.
"Other people in the shop had to sign for me. Later on I was the only mechanic Wien had who could overhaul a DC-3 engine. I'm sure that the passengers would have been horrified to know that a boy, I was 16 by then, was overhauling the engines they were flying on."
Davis said his year as a mechanic renewed his faith in education. He returned to high school, graduated and was accepted at the University of Alaska.
When his doubts about education resurfaced, he decided to hedge his bets and go into business. He bought a sawmill.
"It was actually a pile of parts, so I built the sawmill and got myself a timber permit."
After working all summer cutting down trees, Davis earned enough to pay for the sawmill and have $300 left over.
"I guess all that hard work convinced me to go to school. I took my $300 and entered the university. I really didn't have enough money to go anywhere else," he said.
Davis first worked for the chemistry department and later began carrying water for the Geophysical Institute.
The next year, with more money and wanting a change, he transferred to what is now Iowa State University. When he got homesick, he headed back up north, where he finished his final two years at the University of Alaska.
His experiences of growing up in the North Pole area, going outside to school and returning, gives him a unique perspective on today's young Alaskans.
"I know there is a lot of concern about whether the University of Alaska draws enough of the state's high school graduates. From what I've seen around the state, most of the kids do think highly of the university. But most of them just want to get away from home and see another part of the world. I don't think there should be as much concern as there is on the part of our legislators and educators."
The majority of students who leave the state for their education eventually return, he said. Both of his daughters are now enrolled at UAF.
The University of Alaska and the Geophysical Institute have played a major role in Davis' life and he has watched them grow from relatively small institutions to larger, world-recognized organizations.
In the Institute's early days, undergraduate students frequently worked on projects which would have been restricted to graduate students at other universities. Students were given more responsibility and Davis feels this helped them reach their potential. Today the Institute's staff is much larger and generally older.
In his retirement Davis plans to concentrate on writing the projects he's been interested in but hasn't had time for in the past. Preparing for his increased freedom, he is outfitting his van with a computer so he can work on his projects from whatever stream he's fishing.
"James Michener was quoted in Reader's Digest as saying, 'It doesn't make any difference what you do up to about age 45. After that, things get serious, and it's important to use your time as well as you can.' Since I've passed the 45-year mark, I guess it's time to get serious," Davis said.
UA Site named after T. Neil Davis
T. Neil Davis is also mentioned in these other articles:
Davis, T. Neil. The College Hills Chronicles: How the University of Alaska Came of Age. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Foundation, 1992. Print. ISBN: 1883309018
Davis, T. Neil. Cause of the 1967 Fairbanks Flood, Article #177, Alaska Science Forum, August 6, 1977
Join Neil and interviewer Robert Hannon to hear the story this teacher, leader, writer and scientist has to tell. An Evening with Neil Davis