Lees-McRae honors Donnie Davis with scholarship fund

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   The life of Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald "Donnie" Davis was celebrated Thursday by former classmates and faculty at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C., where Davis attended college.
   But Lees-McRae wasn't just an institution of higher learning to Donnie, according to his mother, Linda Davis of Watauga. "They were family. If you went up there, I don't care who it was, they just could not do enough for you. And for them to do this, I think it would just make Donnie so proud. I know it does us."
   Dr. Earl Robinson, President of Lees-McRae, said they were privileged to have had Donnie as a member of the Lees-McRae College community and family.
   "At times like this, families come together. We come together to share our grief. We come together to remember and we come together to support one another. And that's what we're about here this morning.
   "For all of his short life, Donnie made us, his Lees-McRae family, proud. And as in all families, the loss of one is a tragedy for all."
   As a tribute to Davis, the school has established an annual $1,000 scholarship in his honor. "This scholarship will be made to students attending Lees-McRae College and will be in recognition of his service to our country. A priority will be given to members of the military and their children. In dedication to his roots, priority will be given to students from Eastern Tennessee. The Davis Scholarship will be based on financial need and academic merit [and] will ensure that Donnie Davis's name and legacy will be preserved for all time at Lees-McRae College," Robinson said.
   Kathy Campbell, chaplain at Lees-McRae, said she was very honored to celebrate Davis's life. She offered prayerful thanks "for the many ways his life reflected [God's] love. Help us to continue to celebrate Donnie's life by the way that we choose to live our own life ..."
   Davis, 39, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group out of Ft. Campbell, Ky., was killed Dec. 5 in Afghanistan by "friendly fire" during Operation Enduring Freedom. Davis enlisted as a medical specialist in August 1984, served in Korea for three years, and later was assigned to the 5th Group where he was selected team sergeant in the 3rd Battalion. During his 17 years of military service, he participated in Operation Desert Storm and numerous contingency operations. He received many awards and decorations, among them the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, the Defense of Saudi Arabia medal, and the Liberation and Defense of Kuwait medal.
   Kim Israel, former classmate of Davis's at Lee's-McRae and member of the Bobcat football team, said he and Davis hit it off right away. "He was a sophomore when I was a freshman. ... Donnie was one of those guys that was everybody's friend. He kind of took me under his wing ... especially on the football field. He was a cornerback and I was a free safety."
   Davis took Israel home with him occasionally on weekends. "We'd go there and eat dinner and spend the weekend with him and his family. His brother would take pictures of us on the football field. I still have a couple of those," he said.
   Over the years, Israel said he often thought of Davis and wondered what became of him. "Donnie had a gentleness about him and also a warrior spirit. It didn't surprise me that he became the elite in service with the Green Beret. He definitely had no quit in him. He was definitely a go-getter."
   Israel presented Davis's parents, Lon and Linda, with a football jersey from their school days. "This wasn't exactly our game uniform, but this was one of the practice jerseys that we all had to share. It kind of shrunk over the years. ... but I would like to give this to Donnie's family in remembrance of the times that we shared together," he said.
   Don Baker, vice president for Athletics from 1960 to 1994, said 3,000 athletes passed through the halls of Lees-McRae while he was there.
   "The LMC football alumni are members of an elite fraternity. They're very special. It didn't surprise me that Donnie Davis followed in the tradition of that nature. ... He followed that tradition through his chosen vocation, and he didn't quit. He was special. He was a member of the brotherhood of Bobcats. First of all he was a Bobcat, but most importantly, he was a hero. And I'm here to celebrate his life," Baker said.
   Michelle Scott, director of Alumni Relations and also a graduate of LMC, presented the Davis family with a card from one of Donnie's classmates.
   "It's my regret that I never knew their son," Scott said. "Lees-McRae alumni are a small community. The friendships born here are loyal, true and steadfast."
   Randy Lingerfelt, veterans officer of Carter County, also attended Thursday's memorial and shared stories from his own military career. He said he wanted those in attendance to ponder one question after the ceremony: "What is the cost of freedom?"
   As a young private in Germany, "far away from home, scared, [and] homesick," Lingerfelt said his sergeant came and woke him up in the middle of one rainy night and said, "It's your turn to go out on guard duty."
   "He hands me a loaded weapon and sticks me out on the line to walk the fence line. I'm out there, it's cold, I'm wet, I'm scared. And I'm thinking to myself, 'Why am I here?' I was more concerned about my own feelings. About 'Why me? Why am I cold? Why am I so far away from home?' and 'What is so important about this fence I'm guarding?' I wasn't really thinking about the big picture: the picture of the price of freedom," Lingerfelt said.
   "While we eat, sleep, drink, play, or have fun, there are soldiers, sailors, Marines, Navy personnel, Coast Guard across the world ... defending our way of life and our freedom that we take for granted on a daily basis."
   Donnie's sister, Debbie Sams, speaking on behalf of the family, said that though it has been almost five months since her brother's death, "it seems like yesterday that this tragedy happened to us. We know exactly what we had on that day, what was said. It's still so fresh on our minds."
   She thanked the college for the memorial. "My brother would be very honored. ... Until the loss of Donnie, we didn't realize how many lives he had affected."
   Chaplain Campbell told the group that she had spoken on Wednesday with Donnie's wife, Mi Kyong, who was unable to attend. "She wanted me to share with you how much she wanted to thank everyone for all the calls, and the cards and the prayers and the kindness that was sent her way."