Being a physician for Western Carolina University has been his professional career.
But at the end of the month, Jeff Davis, a university physician for more than 30 years, will retire. At his office in the Bird Building, boxes are being packed and photos have been taken off the walls, while files are sorted and bookshelves cleared, and memories fill the increasing emptiness of the room as he prepares for that last day of work here.
It all began with a small ad in the classified section of a medical journal back in 1985. There was an opening for a primary care physician in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Having recently completed his residency at the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania, the job listing for a position described as being near the Smoky Mountains caught his attention.
“That was all I had to go on,” Davis said. But he was familiar with rural medicine and sensed the mountain community of Jackson County would be a good place to call home. “So, I thought I’d take a chance and apply,” he said. He’s been here ever since, along with his wife, Sandy. This is where they raised their children, now adults, Annelise, Connor and Tessa.
It was the rigors of working in the intensive care unit that led Davis to look for a career in primary care. “The infirmary operated 24/7 then, which was no different than my residency program,” Davis said. “That was year-round, other than the Christmas break when the steam plant shut down. It also meant my housing had to be close by.
“We were in Graham (Infirmary) then, and in some ways, we were better staffed than the emergency room at the then-C.J. Harris Community Hospital. Most of the time, we’d get a call from Harris and say, ‘Send them back to us. We’ll keep them overnight.’ As the ER and the hospital have grown and become better staffed and urgent care has come in, we realized after hours and weekends were pretty well covered. Today, we operate like most urgent care clinics, Monday through Friday, pretty much 8 to 5, and that’s a model that works. We still have the university EMS service, which is a bit unique and quite beneficial as a campus and community service.”
Athletics has been a big part of his life at WCU, whether as a fan, playing intramural sports or practicing sports medicine when needed. Davis treasures the time he spent with Bob Waters, the legendary football coach who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1989. He especially likes to remember when North Carolina State University basketball coach Jim Valvano brought the Wolfpack team to play the Catamounts in the inaugural game at the Ramsey Center and the thrill of that moment in 1986.
Davis is just as appreciated by WCU’s Department of Athletics. Fred Cantler, WCU’s first-ever athletic trainer who went on to work in senior-level management of the department, retiring as the senior associate athletic director for internal relations, and was at least twice the interim athletics director during his career, said Davis played an integral role for university sports.
“Dr. Jeff Davis is one of the most humble, nurturing and knowledgeable physicians I have been associated with. He treated our student-athletes as if they were his children,” Cantler said. “He touched the lives of Catamount student-athletes and staff with his selfless and caring style. Jeff’s legacy will be felt in the future with health and welfare protocols and procedures he has established for our student-athletes during his service to the university. Catamount athletics congratulates Jeff on his retirement, but he will be missed.”
Steven Honbarger, director of sports medicine for WCU athletics, has similar thoughts. “Jeff Davis has been a tremendous asset to this university and the athletic department in providing care to the student population and to our student-athletes from both on-campus event coverage to traveling as our team physician,” said Honbarger. “He will be missed for sure, and it will take someone special to fill his shoes. He was a fan as well as a physician in the stands or on the sidelines, and always showed support for the student-athletes during competition. Through it all, he was always mindful of the health and safety of our student-athletes.”
Davis said his children practically grew up in the training room, as he worked with athletes, putting an emphasis on injury prevention.
“We greatly appreciate Dr. Davis’ longtime support, his expertise, and above all else, his friendship in his partnership with the Western Carolina University football program,” said Head Football Coach Mark Speir. “The health and safety of our student-athletes has always been paramount ― and he’s played a huge role in that. His love of our institution and our program coupled with his true professionalism created such a wonderful relationship that will be greatly missed. We wish Dr. Davis nothing but joy and happiness in his retirement.”
Davis, a Pittsburgh native, earned his undergraduate degree at Wheaton College in Illinois in 1978, then graduated from medical school at Drexel University in Pennsylvania in 1982. When health and wellness is at the core of your work, the emphasis will be on the other person. “I watched a lot of people go to college here, then stay here in the area and raise their family,” he said. “That’s been gratifying. I’ll be back for the games, for the shows and activities, all those wonderful things that Western provides for the community. When you live five minutes from campus, it’s easy.
“So really, I’ll still be here.”