The Rapidian

Presentation to explore legacy of Jaycees founder

Grand Rapids Historical Society explores the legacy of Central High School Principal Jesse Buttrick Davis, who harnessed the energy of teenage boys in the early 1900s to form an organization now known as the Grand Rapids Jaycees.
Central High School Principal Dr. Jesse Buttrick Davis was the first president of the present-day Grand Rapids Community College

Central High School Principal Dr. Jesse Buttrick Davis was the first president of the present-day Grand Rapids Community College /Grand Rapids Community College Archives

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Dr. Davis of Central High School was a pivotal and inspiring leader during the early years of the Grand Rapids Jaycees

The presenter, local historian and librarian Barbara Nan Schichtel , says the success of Dr. Jesse Davis and "his boys" in making Grand Rapids a better place to live had far-reaching consequences. The "junior" group, iniatiated by the Grand Rapids Board of Trade in 1909, spurred the development of other "junior" groups nationwide before the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce would even be formed in 1920.

Davis's desire to help students succeed in a vocation is illustrated in this drawing of him by a student.

Davis's desire to help students succeed in a vocation is illustrated in this drawing of him by a student. /Grand Rapids Central High School yearbook, circa early 1900s

A Central High School principal’s extraordinary leadership among his Grand Rapids students during the early 1900s will be explored Thursday during a presentation about Dr. Jesse B. Davis, a multi-faceted visionary whose positive impact on the community continues today.

Historian, librarian and community leader Barbara Nan Schichtel will present for the first time the results of her fascinating historical research on Davis and “his boys,” starting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, 303 Pearl St. NW. Her research provides an inspiring story about a school leader who used his position among business leaders as a springboard to develop “his boys” into respected leaders by engaging them in community projects and organizations that still endure, most notably the Grand Rapids Jaycees.

As principal of a school serving primarily college-bound students at that time, Davis was faced with an impatient and frustrated school board who directed him to “clean up” school social problems, eliminate “secret societies,” raise academic standards, and help the influential furniture industry deal with the training challenges facing less-advantaged students.

Using his position as a member of the Grand Rapids Board of Trade, the forerunner of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Davis embraced the board’s 1909 establishment of a “junior” group of sons of members to train future workers and leaders.

In its first year as the Grand Rapids "Junior" Board of Trade, 85 boys, most of them Central High School students, engaged in activities. They took trade and industrial tours to learn about new vocational opportunities, helped win votes to build city parks, and provided the business community with manpower that built the city’s reputation as a “good convention town.”

By harnessing the exuberant energies of junior-and high-school boys, Davis and “his boys” helped make Grand Rapids a better place to live and helped shape the boys into respected members of the community.

As school principal from 1907 to 1920, Davis’s success to raise academic achievement was significant. He created numerous school clubs in productive activities, such as band and choir, which kept students out of trouble and raised academic standards. He also rewrote the 7-12th grade English curriculum. His work earned him an international reputation as of the fathers of the vocational guidance movement. 

The success of Jesse and “his boys” had far-reaching positive consequences in spurring the development of other “junior” groups nationwide before the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce would even be formed in 1920.

In 1929, the Grand Rapids Jaycees was charted as a U.S. affiliate and continues today its tradition of sponsoring high-profile and lesser-known community projects – 103 years after its founding.

The Grand Rapids Jaycees built voter support for the first Kent County Airport and the Civic Auditorium. It purchased the All-American Girls Baseball League franchise we know today as the Grand Rapids Chicks and ran a professional golf tournament raising millions for charity. It also helped establish Junior Achievement in West Michigan and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Moreover, Davis played a significant role in the legacy of another important institution in our community. In 1914, under Davis's leadership, the board of education organized the present-day Grand Rapids Community College with Davis serving as its first president. Classes met on the third floor of the high school.

Schichtel is continuing her historical study of Jesse Davis, “his boys” and the Grand Rapids Jaycees so she can write the yet unwritten pages of their history. She is librarian at Grand Rapids Community College, life member of the Jaycees, and trustee of the Grand Rapids Historical Society.

Her presentation is co-sponsored by the Grand Rapids Historical Society and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. It is free and open to the public. Parking is free, too.

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