James C. Davis, 85, history professor and writer

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James C. Davis

James C. Davis, 85, of Philadelphia, a retired history professor, writer, and johnny-come-lately painter, died Wednesday, Oct. 26, of heart disease at Cathedral Village, where he had lived for three years.

Dr. Davis was a professor of European history at the University of Pennsylvania for 34 years before retiring in 1994 as professor emeritus.

A modest, gentle soul, he had many interests, including painting, which he took up in retirement.

Wanting to instill in his family his interest in the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, Dr. Davis gathered old paint from half-used cans, scraps of wooden boards, and old, blank canvases.

Then he threw a backyard party, in which the Davis clan splashed and splattered paint in Pollock's style.

"Imagine that," daughter Miriam Lally wrote in a eulogy. "Seriously, who does that?"

Known to friends as "Jim," Dr. Davis was born in Orange, N.J., to William Faber Davis and Mary Pennypacker Davis.

He earned a bachelor's degree in English from Princeton University, where he wrote for the Daily Princetonian. While serving in the Army in Italy he edited the Army's paper and fell in love with the locals, including Elda Zuzek. He married her, and once back stateside, the couple settled in Philadelphia and had three children.

Dr. Davis completed a master's degree at Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University.

He wrote five books, including a memoir, So Far, So Good, which reflected his genial nature.

Another book, The Human Story, was published in several languages by HarperCollins. It was intended to make otherwise dull material an easy read, his daughter said.

He also wrote books about Venice, the early history of European nations, and the lives of peasants and blue-collar workers.

When he saw ways in which he might foster beauty, Dr. Davis acted.

"He would pick up acorns and keep them in his coat pockets, along with wildflower seeds, and sow them in empty spaces," his daughter said.

A Philadelphia committeeman and follower of the news, he wasn't afraid to speak out. If something bothered him, he turned to his trusty Olivetti typewriter and crafted a tightly worded letter to the editor, said his daughter.

The one area in which he fell short was as a pancake maker.

"He firmly believed that the batter should be minimally mixed. This usually resulted in perfect, fluffy, delicious pancakes. On some occasions, however, this meant unbroken yolks on your plate, his daughter said.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by his wife, sons David and Daniel, six grandchildren, and a brother.

Services were Oct. 30.

Donations may be made to the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania via www.mhasp.org, or the Alzheimer's Association via www.alz.org.

bcook@phillynews.com

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