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Three fitting words for wordsmith Leo Davis: Hall of Famer

If you’re a member of the under-50 generation, you’ve likely never heard of Leo Davis. That’s a shame.

Especially if you’re a reader of the sports pages. Davis was a master at work during his 23-year stint at The Oregonian from 1961 until his death in 1983 at age 62 from Hodgkin’s disease.

I’m so glad Davis was honored Tuesday night with induction into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame at the Multnomah Athletic Club.

First of all, too few of my sportswriter brethren are enshrined — five now, by my count: including Dwight Jaynes, my partner in crime; Al Lightner (partly for his basketball officiating); L.H. Gregory; and my mentor, the late, great George Pasero.

OSHF executive Jack Elder announced Tuesday night the establishment of the “Bill Schonely Award” that will annually recognize a member of the state’s sportscasting and sportswriting fraternity. That’s nice. There are folks out there who need to be remembered.

Nobody more than Davis, who made an unforgettable imprint on the state’s sports landscape with his prose in a time now mostly forgotten.

“Steve Prefontaine believes that on a given day he can beat any man in the world at a given distance from one to six miles.

“Given one exception, we agree. Pre will never catch himself.”

The OSHF class of 2012 flexed its muscles in different ways Tuesday night.

Equestrian star Rich Fellers was humble and soft-spoken, football’s Joey Harrington thoughtful and reflective, the irrepressible Mouse Davis a complete crack-up as always.

Octogenerian Bob “Tiger” Zelinka — an assistant coach on the 1962 Terry Baker-led Oregon State football team that was being inducted — got off the line of the night, though, when he momentarily lost his train of thought.

“When you get to be my age,” Zelinka offered, “you find out that your memory is the second thing to go.”

Leo Davis would have had a good chuckle over that one. Nobody enjoyed a laugh more than Leo.

I first met Leo as a youngster growing up in Corvallis. My father, John Eggers, was sports information director at Oregon State. His job was to work with the media and take care of their needs in covering the Beavers.

I hung around the press box often enough to get to know many of the writers and sportscasters, and if I had a favorite, it was Davis. He always had a friendly word for the local kid and a twinkle in his eye, too.

When I grew old enough to appreciate a writer’s talent, two caught my attention — Davis at The Oregonian and Kenny Wheeler at the Oregon Journal.

“A funny thing happened on the way to the bank. Bill Walton discovered money won’t buy him the one thing he prizes above all else.

“Take the average millionaire out of his cashmeres and he could run naked through the town square without turning a head. Poor Bill surrendered anonymity when he turned pro. There is no hiding a 6-11 redhead in cutoffs, not after he has been identified as a national treasure by Blazer fans.

“Bill was a willing witness on the basketball court; off he was incommunicado. He’d rather go one-on-one with a 7-5 skyhook than a 5-7 reporter.”

Davis may have been 5-7, but he was a giant at the typewriter (something we oldtimers used before they invented the laptop). Leo was what was known in the business as a “wordsmith.” He mastered the art of making a sentence sound a little more interesting than the rest of of us.

“Spring is for free spirits. Watching goosebumps grow may not express your competitive urge, but after football’s joyless struggle and basketball’s thousand and one deaths, track and field is a welcome cathartic.”

Davis’ dry wit came across both in his copy and in everyday life. I was fortunate to cover some of the same beats with him — track and field, and University of Oregon basketball for two — when I was at The Journal at the start of my career. We’d occasionally have dinner or a game of tennis on the road (his serve carried more spin that that of a presidential candidate’s flak), made just a little more enjoyable by his sardonic observations, always delivered with a sly smile.

Our colleague Norm Maves was exactly right when he said Davis served as a mentor to the day’s younger writers, but offered advice only when we asked. There was no hint of condescension involved, even when his writing talents flowed when ours had gone dry near deadline.

“Got the blahs? Dial-A-Pumpkin. Dee Andros is West Coast distributor for joy and glad tidings.”

Funny guys usually don’t have to work at it. Funny lines came easily to Davis.

Maves recalls a day when Oregon State’s Tim Smith scored from 90 yards on the first kickoff return of his career.

Seeking a way to finish the line, “Smith is the greatest misuse of talent since ...,” Maves nodded in Davis’ direction.

“I heard about this guy who started out as a carpenter,” Davis cracked.

Jesus would have been proud of that one.

When staffs of The Oregonian and Journal merged in 1982, I got to work alongside Davis for just a year before Hodgkin’s took him away from us too early in life.

I’m just glad he is being recognized now for his extraordinary body of work.




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