History of William Keith Davis

by Gerold N. Davis

Note: Keith was Garold’s older brother. They are my double cousins. Our mothers were sisters and our fathers were cousins. H. Clay Gorton.

William Keith Davis was born of good parents, William Henry Davis and Josephine Sterrett Davis on February 12, 1927 in Bancroft, Idaho. The name William was for his grandfathers William Morris Davis and William Henry Waylet and for his father William Henry Davis. He was known in the family as Keith.

He attended the public schools primarily in Pocatello and Idaho Falls, Idaho. He was five years older than I, and was, consequently a childhood hero and model. I watched when he played on a little league baseball team in Pocatello (catcher, like his father). I “tagged along” when he and his friends went to their private swimming hole on the Portneuf River (and burned by lips trying to imitate their smoking tree bark.). Keith initiated me to winter sports when he took me on a homemade sled down the steepest part of the sledding run in the Pocatello foothills.

His heroics increased, in my eyes, when we moved to Idaho Falls in 1939. Sometime in those years Keith had become active in the YMCA and had become an enthusiastic long-distance swimmer. I remember going with him what seemed miles up the canal in Idaho Falls where he would put on his swimming suit and swim down the canal (while I ran along the bank carrying his clothes) to where the canal emptied into Reno Lake and would then swim back and forth across the lake until he had completed a five-mile swim. I remember one day when he swam out into the lake and rescued a drowning man.

The war had begun in Europe and the Battle of Britain was getting desperate. That meant little to me at my age, but I remember hearing impassioned conversations between my older brother and my parents about the situation. The Royal Canadian Air force was accepting American volunteer. For several weeks I remember hearing through my bedroom door late at night an ongoing debate about whether Keith would be allowed to join. The initials RCAF incite in me to this day a vague emotion of something marvelous, exotic and heroic. But the parents’ will prevailed, and Keith, instead of joining the RCAF, took a job in Long Beach, California in a large hotel restaurant. Shortly after this the entire family migrated from the poverty and cold winters of Idaho to the plentiful jobs and good pay n the shipyards of California. We moved to Alameda and Keith then joined my father, grandfather, and two uncles as a worker in the shipyards.

Three things stand out in my mind regarding Keith during our days in Alameda. He played on a Church basketball team and I was an enthusiastic team follower as they played the other Church teams in the Oakland Stake. He because very dedicated to the Church, and I remember what pride I felt when at a Stake Conference he was chose as the model member of the Aaronic Priesthood in the Stake and was presented an autographed book by one o the general authorities. The third thing that stands out I my mind from these days is Keith’s determination to continue his education. He had left Idaho Falls without a high school diploma. There were many young people in California in the same circumstances in those days, young people who had left the depressed areas of the country for the plentiful jobs in what was called the “war industry.” The University of California at Berkeley had established a night school to help these students complete their high school education, and Keith enrolled. He worked days and traveled to Berkeley at night to attend school. Why this stands out so strongly in my mind is that during his examination week, he became very ill. He coughed a lot and in spite of a high fever he continued going to school every night. One night an ambulance came to our house and rushed him to the hospital where Keith smiled at me from under an oxygen tent, impressed on my mind the importance he placed n education, young as I was.

Before he could complete his high school work, however, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. To me it was always a disappointment that he was a soldier in the infantry and not a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He spent time at Fort Ord, California, Camp Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Lewis, Washington. The pneumonia had left him with a lingering case of asthma, and the damp air in northern Washington put him back in the hospital. The hospitalization presented him from “shipping out” for combat duty, and by the time he had recovered from his illness, the ward had ended.

In 1945 he was discharged. By that time we had left the Bay Area and my parents had purchased a ten-acre farm in Ashland, Oregon. Keith came to live with us there and was finally able to complete his high school education, although, as an ex “GI,” he was some years older than the average high school student. He must have inherited some acting talent (and experience) from his parents, who for many years had been active in drama, because he was chosen to play the leading role in the senior play the year he graduated. Shortly after graduation he became the first missionary to be called form the Ashland Branch. He was called to serve in the North Central State Mission headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, and worked mainly in Montana and in North and South Dakota, from 1947 to 1949. As in everything else that Keith did, his mission was also unusual in many ways. From reading his missionary letters and from hearing his reports after his return, two aspect of his mission stand out in my mind.

For three months the missionaries in his mission went without “purse or script.” I suspect that Keith was among the last missionaries to go “without purse or script.” at least in a Western country. He preached and proselyted during the day and requested food and lodging from the people he taught. His testimony of this experience was faith promoting. The missionaries, however, kept money in their wallets as an emergency reserve. Keith did not. He told me that those who carried money had great difficulties, and had several nights where they had no place to sleep. Keith testified that he and his companion without a penny in their pockets never went without a meal and never went without a bed to sleep in.

The other unusual experience of his mission was the months he spent preaching to the Indians on a reservation out of Billings, Montana. Rather than live in the city and preach to the Indians during the day, Keith and his companion decided they would be better accepted by the Indians if they lived with them. Consequently, they set up their residence on the ground of the reservation, farthest from the water, Keith emphasized. Their first Church service was attended by a single Indian girl. Keith soon gained the respect and confidence of the tribal Chief, however.

Chief Last Bull became a good friend to Keith and his companion, and after they had gained his confidence Last Bull told them a rather amazing story, which was late recorded and deposited in the Church archives at the request of Apostle Spence W. Kimball, who was, at that time, in charge of Indian affairs in the Church. This is the story as I remember it from Keith.

Christian missionaries had come to the Indian village some years earlier. Last Bull had been attracted by their teachings, especially their teachings of an afterlife and a heaven. Last Bull explained to these missionaries that his father and mother were dead, and that when he died he wanted to be with them. He was told, however, that because his father and mother had died without accepting Jesus Christ they had gone to hell. Last Bull was very distraught over this news. He decided that he wanted to be with his parents anyway, and he went into the hills and sat down under a tree. He wanted to starve himself to death and join his parents. When he fell asleep he had a dream. He saw a beautiful Indian village with teepees made of white buckskin, and many Indians dressed in white buckskin. Among the Indians de recognized his father and his mother. They approached him and told him he must not die, but that he must go back to his village and wait. Soon two other missionaries would come to him and they would bring with them a book that would tell him about his ancestors. He did as he was instructed in the dream. When Keith and his companion heard the story they taught Chief Last Bull about the Book of Mormon. Last Bull told them they were the messengers his parents had told him would come.

Sometime late Keith took Chief Last Bull into a Conference in Billings, Montana where the chief told his story and bore his testimony about the Book of Mormon. Keith told me on one incident that took place at this stake conference that set me forever against any form of racial prejudice. Keith and his companion inquired among the members of the branch to find a home where Chief Last Bull could stay during the conference, but none of the members would allow an Indian to stay in their home. Finally the Branch President agreed to keep him. On the return to the reservation, Chief Last Bull told Keith what wonderful people the Mormons were. They were true Christians. A white man had allowed him to stay in his home, something he never thought he would be able to do. Keith did not tell him that there was only one family in the branch who would do this. And he told me how grateful he was for that branch president who had managed to overcome his own heritage of bigotry. Chief Last Bull was later baptized into the Church.

After his mission Keith returned to Ashland, Oregon where he helped his father maintain the small family farm. Keith’s father was working at that time as a telegraph agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and was often on assignment at various railroad stations around Southern Oregon. Keith’s brother, Garold, was very happy to have some help in milking the three cows, feeding the pigs, and helping to run things while the father was away. Garold was also pleased when Keith bought a car, a little Ford coupe, which he, Garold, could occasionally borrow.

Keith had been engaged to a girl in Tacoma, Washington during his stay there in the army, but the marriage had been opposed by the girl’s family (who wanted their daughter to marry an eighteen-year-old soldier). Now, Keith began dating what few LDS girls there were in the small Ashland Branch and he enrolled at Southern Oregon College. He quickly found an interest in and a great talent for mathematics. He became a math major, and from then o mathematics became his obsession.

In addition to taking care of the small farm and studying mathematics at Southern Oregon College, Keith took up carpentry to help support himself at school. He contracted and built houses and did other carpentry work when he had an opportunity and time. In the fall of 1950 Keith transferred to the University of Utah and then later to Brigham Young University.

Life to this point had not been particularly cruel to Keith, but it had not been particularly kind, either. What life had been was unusual. His entire social world had been put out of phase. His high school years had been truncated in order to go to work. Then, when he wanted to return to high school he had been drafted into the army. When he was finally able to return to school he was much older and more mature than the normal high school students who were now his classmates. The consequences of being continually out of phase with normalcy created in Keith a desire for a normal social relationship that could not be realized. In the world of mathematics, however, he found a world that was under his own control. Younger students at Southern Oregon College recognized his talents and came to him often for help. He became an unofficial, unpaid tutor.. His ambitions were higher, however.

In the summer of 1951 Keith felt he was on the verge of genuine recognition. After spending eighteen hours a day filling notebooks with equations which only he could decipher, he determined he had found a way to square the circle. In the fall of that year he returned to Brigham Young University, but once again he found his life out of phase. The students could no longer understand him, and the professors did not have the time nor interest to go through pages and pages of mathematical formulas which, according to Keith, accomplished something no mathematician had been able to accomplish before. With the social world of his peers closing to him, and with no prospects for recognition from his superiors, Keith fell out of love with the practical life he saw about him and began to create for himself an inward life in which he was the true hero. In order to bring him back to reality, he was sent to the veteran’s hospital in Sheridan, Wyoming where he was given electric shock treatments. He hated the methods, but they were effective, for a time. Keith was soon back in school again, and for the next few years his life alternated between math classes and state hospitals in Utah and Oregon. When he received his BA degree in 1956 his life was still out of phase. There were no jobs for mathematicians with a BA degree, and he was not well enough to undertake the rigorous demands of graduate school.

He worked in a few lumber mills, and then decided to make big money falling timber. He did make some big money for a time, but then he felled a very expensive Douglas fir across a gully and busted it into small pieces, his career in the Oregon woods came to an end, and he sold his chain saw. He returned again to contracting and carpentry, but there was not much business for a self-employed carpenter.

In 1965 he went with his parents to Oakland, California. They had been called to be Temple workers in the new Oakland Temple, and Keith found a job back at the shipyards where he had worked during the war, twenty years earlier. The work in the shipyards was far from Keith’s ideal world, however, and slowly his ideal world began replacing the external world of everyday reality. But reality found him easily enough. He awoke one day in a hospital after two days of unconsciousness. On an Oakland street one night he had been hit over the head, robbed, and left on the sidewalk with a fractured skill and a broken jaw. He never worked or returned to the real world again, except for short periods of time to communicate with his parents and family, and he then quickly retreated into the better world he had created for himself.

In 1968 his parents moved with Keith to Provo, Utah. He was now totally dependent on them for his welfare. His faithful mother made sure he shaved and showered regularly, changed his clothes, and ate his meals. He helped his father mow the lawn occasionally, but for the most part, Keith took long walks in the real world while he lived in the world of his imagination. His long walks earned him the nickname of “Strider” from the students at Farrer Junior High where he often passed. He became known to many people as “Mr. Provo.” Legends began to collect about him. Some people, not knowing he was my brother, had told me that his illness was the result of wounds he received in the war. Others have said he had a wife and family. It is also rumored that he was a famous math professor at a large university. It is very possible, of course, that these legends were started by Keith himself. They are the major parts of the ideal life he would like to have had–a professorship, recognition, a wife and family. It was not be, however, not in this life. He lived out of phase with his peers and died out of phase with his environment. His last love was walking and he was killed by a machine. His years as a missionary and his short life as a mathematician were probably the only uncluttered and happy years of his life.

But no life is in vain. Our conviction as that the ideal life Keith created for himself was not an imaginary world. He recreated, from memory an ideal life that was once his, and he envisioned, from promises, an ideal life that will be his again. Eternity owes much to Keith, and will still be repaying him in the brilliance and clarity of an eternal present when this world we now call real–the world he rejected–will have faded into the vagueness of a nearly forgotten dream.