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Retirement Brings Adventure

by Janet Nesler

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The shutter clicks and captures the fame, of Movie Stars, Presidents, and Country Singers to Astronauts.  If Don Davis could line up all the 16x20 gold-framed photographs he has taken since 1952, it would be a solid line some 400 feet long, portraying at least 200 celebrities.  Hidden adventures lie behind each photo, from the moment it was taken to the time the final autograph was applied with a silver pen.

 For Davis and his wife, Garnet, it became a way of life, a hobby with a challenge sometimes yielding great rewards.   Meeting presidents, dining with celebrities, free concert tickets and backstage passes are just a few of them. 

The Davis’s have been on the Country Music Heritage Committee at the Kentucky Highlands Museum, in Ashland, KY for the past ten years and have helped to attain $14,000 in showcases.  Davis was responsible for acquiring the world’s largest collection display of country singer Keith Whitley, from millionaire Richard Snoden.  Snoden, owner of Talley Ho Casino in Las Vegas, is a collector, fan, and friend of the Whitley family.  Davis attended and photographed the unveiling of the seven-foot statue of Whitley in Sandy Hook, KY.  The statue had been escorted from Nashville by 45 Harley Davison motorcycles.

As a freelance photographer, Davis, with the help of his wife Garnet, has captured scenic landscapes, weddings and historic moments since his army days.

“I was just a poor country boy when I joined the army,” Davis said. “I was stationed in Panama in 1952 and took up photography as a hobby. I formed a photography club on my base and when I heard the Queen of England was coming to Panama City, I took the camera club to see her. That was the first time I photo­graphed a famous face.”  Davis had sent copies to the Queen and later re­ceived a letter of appreciation from Buckingham Palace. “(It) really whetted my appetite for Photographing celebrities.”  Soon after, Davis began taking pictures of celebrities at every available opportunity.

“I was on the Portsmouth River Days committee for eight years and was chief pho­tographer and on the publicity committee, I helped bring in people like James Durey, Bob Fuller and Lonzo and Oscar,” he smiles. “For four years, I did the River Days program and I needed photos to print in the pro­gram.  It was then I realized how many celebrity photos I had accumulated in my files.”

Davis started his collection of different personalities by en­larging the best of the photos to 16x20 size in gold frames.  Each frame displays a gold plaque at the bottom list­ing the celebrity’s name, pro­fession and date the photo was taken.

“The art and the challenge is to take a candid shot and make it look like a portrait,” said Davis. “When you only get five minutes, you have to make the most of the five minutes.  You have to get the right angle and the right background, so you have to think fast.  Sometimes when the back­ground is really bad, I have it removed by the artists at the photography studio and a black background put in,” Davis continues.

The most difficult challenge is obtaining an auto­graph for each image. Most of his photo collection is auto­graphed with a gold, silver or black pen, depending on its background.

“I have to catch them a sec­ond time,” he laughs. “That’s where the challenge comes in.  If I hear they are going to be within driving distance, Garnet and I try to go where they are to get the autograph.  While I’m there, I usually shoot a few more photos of any other stars that may be in the area.”

“One of the saddest things is when one of the stars die be­fore the photo is autographed.  Some of the photographs that will never be autographed are Dinah Shore, Telly Saval­as, Bill Monroe, Conway Twit­ty and Ernest Tubb.”

One of his most memorable experiences was photograph­ing Dolly Parton.  Mingling in with her fan club, Davis ended up about 10 feet away from her.  He took several shots with a 70 to 200MM lens.   Obtaining the Portraits autograph was a similar adventure.  Dolly Parton made a backstage appearance at Cannonsburg, KY.  Everyone was being turned away with the exception of a group of school children that had made her a coat of many colors, to match her song.  They presented her the colorful coat in a box with a dozen roses and an official commendation from Billy Ray Cyrus’s father, who was State Rep., to make it official.  Encouraged by the children, Dolly tried the coat on and Davis said, “Dolly, look at me” then a world exclusive photo of Dolly in the coat of many colors was captured. 

A true challenge was pho­tographing Charlton Heston at a political breakfast  being held for the Re­publican Party in Roberts Arena.

“I found out Heston was going to be in Ohio. I had to make a lot of calls to find out where he was going to be. Then I found out he was only going to be at the breakfast one hour. “I had to make plans fast. My press pass from a local newspaper got me in and I photographed him during his speech. It was a thrill and an honor to photograph such a mega-star.”

As a personal friend of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Davis had managed to photograph the cou­ple many times. After the death of Roger’s sister, Cleda Willoughby of Portsmouth, Davis sent Roy and Dale a 5x7 photo of Willoughby. In return, he received a letter from Dale Evans stating it was framed and was setting on Roger’s desk.

Davis was Co-coordinator of the Roy Rogers Festival activities on the Esplanade for nearly five years and has worked with the festival for approximately 20 years.  He has scheduled entertainment and staged western shoot-outs in Portsmouth.  During one of the Festivals, Actor, Iron Eyes Cody, attended a cookout at the Davis’s.  A photograph was captured by Davis which now hangs in the Shawnee State Lodge in Friendship, Ohio.

During another political campaign in Huntington, WV, Davis captured Bill, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton, whose images he later framed.  Davis read that former President Jimmy Carter and wife Roselyn, and Hilary Clinton were lending a hand for the Habitat for Humanity in Pikeville, KY.  Not only did he attain autographs for his previous images of President Carter and Roselyn, he was able to meet Hilary Clinton.

Davis, with a press pass, was able to walk freely around one of the houses being built where he met Jimmy Carter and asked if he would sign his photo.  President Carter replied, “Sure, bring it on up here.”  The former President and his wife both signed their photos.

Later, at a building used for lunches, he met Hilary and asked if she would sign her photos.  She said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”  The Secret Service actually helped Davis set up tables to lie out her photos for signing.  Hilary picked up one of the photos and said, “Wow, that is up close.”  Then she signed it while Davis photographed her signing, and one of her holding it. 

 Davis sent copies of them autographing the images and received letters from both Jimmy Carter and Hilary Clinton.

Davis’s work hangs in honor at various museums.  At the Coalton Museum in Coalton, Ohio, hangs the last image taken of Gov. Rhodes, signed by him to the people of Ohio.  At Bob Brown’s Leather Museum in Hollywood, a photograph portrait of Bob Brown himself, the famous leather workman to numerous Hollywood stars, is on display.  In the DuMont Museum in Signory, IA, several of Davis’s photographs are displayed.  He and Garnet traveled to Iowa recently and were given the grand tour of the museum.

“To capture Arnold Schawrtzenegger, I went to Columbus to a fitness Seminar where Swartznagger was going to make a guest appearance”, said Davis.  “My press pass got me in and I received all sorts of gifts and expensive magazines on fitness.  I photographed him, but that is one that I have never gotten autographed yet.”

Davis has even made The New York Times Newspaper, which requested and published one of his photos in an article about Country Singer Amy Chaney, covering her concert at The Kentucky Highlands Museum. 

Retirement has in no way slowed Davis down.  Last year he had an exhibit of celebrity photos at Prestonsburg, KY Mountain Arts Center.  Davis was Coordinator of the 2004 Tri-State Country Talent Search in Ashland, KY and is currently active in locating talent for the Southern Ohio Opry while helping with tickets at the door and photographs when needed.

Davis has come a long way from the country boy who wanted to be a photogra­pher. As a three-time commissioned Kentucky Colonel, he has received letters from numerous stars, and important celebrities such as former Presidents Carter and Clinton. Davis always sends a copy of the photo he en­larges to each celebrity. Over the years he has given away some 35,000 photos.  Always with a smile, he exhibits many on the walls of his workshop.

“One thing I’ve always said is that kind­ness is hard to give away” Davis stated.  “I’ve been blessed by the wonderful people I’ve been as­sociated with through the medium of photography. When you treat people right and you’re nice to people, it comes back to you.”



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