Dr. Leroy Davis has not stopped impacting the lives of others since his tenure as president of South Carolina State University ended more than a decade ago. It is a journey of service he loves.
Whether he has served as executive director of a center designed to enhance rural and minority health, a consultant to help Historically Black Colleges and Universities retain their program accreditation, or, as he’s presently doing, serving as a trustee for a philanthropic fund that gives millions to organizations and individuals in need, Davis has spent much of his time giving back.
The Orangeburg native was president of S.C. State University from 1996 to 2002 and served a stint as interim president in 2005. The 69-year-old started teaching at the institution at age 23.
He said his service at S.C. State was a springboard for what was to come.
“Not only do I enjoy doing the things I do, but I have learned so much by doing them. And it seems as if my 30 years at South Carolina State was a springboard. It really prepared me to do these things that I had no earthly idea what they were about,” Davis said.
“But because I had served as a president at an institution, I got the opportunity to serve on these boards and to do consulting. So this phase of my life that I’m in right now has been such an unexpected joy from the work that I’ve done, the people that I’ve met and the travels that I’ve been on,” he said. “It’s just been a magnificent journey of learning, growing and serving.”
Davis served as executive director of the Center of Excellence in Rural and Minority Health and as a distinguished professor of biology at Voorhees College in Denmark from 2002 to 2016.
“That was a very, very important part of my post-presidential experiences. I really got a chance to do a lot of things in the community and to really make a difference in the lives of people in that rural community,” Davis said.
“When I reflect on the kinds of work that we did, working with people who had conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, working to do cancer screenings and to do a whole range of preventive kinds of things like keeping people from smoking, those 14 years were so enriching to me. Being from South Carolina and being from a rural area, I just enjoyed that work,” he said.
Davis also served as an educational consultant for the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta from 2002 to 2011.
“Part of my role was to help them with their work as it relates to HBCUs. We sponsored a lot of workshops and programs to help them with their accreditation, which is something that I had gained expertise in.
“I spent nine years traveling all over the South and Southeast and the West and Midwest to HBCUs, serving as a resource to help them get ready for accreditation and to evaluate their programs and all of the things that they needed to be accountable for in order to retain their accreditation,” Davis said.
He said his most enriching work has come from serving as a board trustee for the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, work which he began in 2005 and continues today.
“From 1970 to the current time, the organization has grown from about $42 million. Today it’s worth $300 million. Plus, over those years, they’ve given out over $400 million. I have had the privilege of being a trustee to help award grants,” Davis said.
He added, “I read proposals every month. ... Every year we give out about $15 million in grants to organizations throughout the country. Also, when there are natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, we normally give millions of dollars to the Red Cross and Salvation Army to assist and help people who have suffered in those kinds of situations.”
The work has been a rewarding experience for him.
“It has been such a wonderful experience learning and understanding things that were so far away from my background, learning things about theology, sociology, more things about medicine, people who have spent their careers in the nonprofit sector," he said.
“So this work has been enriching for me. I’m in my 15th year of being a board member, and I have had far more experiences than I could have ever imagined growing up in Orangeburg, South Carolina."
Davis was recently named board chair emeritus for the S.C. Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics at its 30th anniversary convocation ceremony in October. He was appointed to the board in 1995 and retired from the board in 2017.
He considers the GSSM a “tremendous asset” to the state.
“The school has been a driver for economic development because we have the best and brightest students who have aptitudes in science and mathematics. We have allowed many of these students to compete for in-state scholarships at our universities," he said.
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“And about half of them who graduate from the Governor’s School remain in the state. And they enroll all over the state, including at Clemson, Carolina, the College of Charleston and Claflin’s had one student from the Governor’s School. So we are able to retain the talent in science and math, and this helps us to attract industry."
Students enrolled in a longtime summer program at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston are required to do research at least one summer.
“So they go to not just the research universities, but they go to industries to do their research," Davis said. "Also, our students have international study abroad programs where they do research in the summer. They have gone and continue to go to places like Germany, China and Korea to do research. Oftentimes, those places send students to us. So there’s that exchange as well."
The other half of the GSSM’s students compete and travel out of state to schools such as Yale, Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities.
“They’ve gained entrance into those programs, and our hope is that some of them will come back to the state once they’ve completed their education. So the whole purpose of the Governor’s School is to cultivate the in-state talent and interest in science and technology and to provide an environment for those students to flourish, grow and be creative,” Davis said.
He added, “The Governor’s School is a state resource that reaches beyond its campus. We have a lot of outreach programs to some of the rural school districts, the school districts that are struggling to train teachers and to provide summer programs for students.
“And so it is an asset that the whole state can take advantage of. It’s not just those bright students who get an opportunity to come there, but we actually take the expertise and the resources that we have at Hartsville throughout the state so that everybody can benefit,”
Many of the programs are in collaboration with industry.
“For example, Boeing has been a tremendous partner. And my grandson has taken Governor’s School programs here in Orangeburg at Clark Middle School in the summer that’s co-sponsored by the Governor’s School and Boeing to help in engineering and to develop aptitude. And that’s just not in Orangeburg but throughout the state of South Carolina," he said.
“So we have had a challenge to convince people that the Governor’s School is more than just a school for a few students. It is a state resource that has benefits throughout the state of South Carolina."
Getting more representation in the sciences among minorities and women is a challenge, he said.
“Minorities and women are still underrepresented in the sciences. And getting more minorities enrolled at the Governor’s School continues to be a challenge. ... So there’s lots of different outreach programs that benefit minority students, but the one challenge that we have is really getting more of them enrolled in the residential program in Hartsville,” he said. “That has been improving steadily, but it’s still room for improvement.”
Davis said the GSSM continues to thrive and flourish as “one of the jewels in the crown of education” in the state and that he was fortunate to have met students from Orangeburg over the 22 years he served on its board.
“I had the opportunity to see a number of students from Orangeburg come to the Governor’s School. Some students from Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School over the years have come and gone on to very successful careers in higher education and to research and medicine and all kinds of professions," he said.
“Also, in recent years, we started a pre-engineering program at the Governor’s School. One of the major sites for getting that program off the ground was Orangeburg. And in recent years, the High School for the Health Professions has sent a number of students to the Governor’s School. A couple of years ago, they sent five students in one year, which is rather phenomenal for a community like Orangeburg,” he said. “So that has been very gratifying to see students from my hometown come and benefit.”
He added, “I know of at least three or four faculty members from South Carolina State who had children to come to the Governor’s School. And they have done very well. So that has been very gratifying to me. Because I’m a scientist myself, whenever we can do things in this state to promote science, technology and engineering, that’s always gratifying to me personally.”
Davis’ other post-presidential activities include serving as a trustee for the Southeastern Council of Foundations from 2009 to 2017; a trustee for the S.C. Academy of Medicine and Public Health from 2011-2016; a member of the Regional Medical Center Institutional Review Board from 2008 to 2017 and a member of Rotary International, Orangeburg Club, since 1996.
Davis, who has also served as trustee board chairman at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Orangeburg since 1983, received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from Purdue University in 2003 and honorary doctor of science degrees from Tuskegee in 2004 and Purdue University in 2005. The science and research building on the S.C. State campus was also named in his honor in 2011.
Davis and his wife of 45 years, Christine, are the parents of two children, Tonya, a science teacher at Calhoun County High School, and Leroy Jr., a banker and attorney in North Carolina. They and the grandparents of six.
He considers himself fortunate to have lived a life doing what he loves -- serving others.
“I’ve just been blessed far beyond measure or anything I could have imagined,” he said.