The Constant Flame - Recalling the life of John Davis By Fred Groh



    Republished courtesy of International Bowling Industry magazine (Volume 21, March 2013)

    2013IBIJohnDavisTribute.jpg We did not know John Davis the way Len Nicholson did, or Chris Chartrand or Pat Ciniello, all three friends and colleagues of Davis's for years who spoke at the memorial service for him in February. It was held at the most appropriate possible place: the Kegel Training Center at Kegel headquarters in Lake Wales, FL. Davis died Jan. 25.

    We knew some of Davis's story, the part everyone knows.

    "He tried to do something that no one else did," as Nicholson says. "He tried to make the sport as fair as possible." The two met in 1988, when Nicholson had already been doing the PBA Tour lanes for 27 years.

    "John knew more about bowling than anybody I had ever met. He said he wanted to learn more. So he volunteered to come out and observe and help us any way he could. He studied everything we did.

    "Once he started doing the lanes on the tour, he realized it wasn't just the oil patterns. The shape of the lane caused a lot of problems. So when he built the Training Center he had cables put underneath the lane, where you could adjust the lane to make it flat, depressed, crowned." He also devised a machine to analyze and measure the topography of a lane, the LaneMapper.

    "You remember that Apple commercial 'Think different'?" asks Chartrand, Kegel president. "'Here's to the crazy ones, the rebels. They reject the status quo and they move the human race forward.' The last line is, 'Those that are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do.' That's John.

    He was crazy enough to think that our sport can be saved and could be a glorious activity and sport again. That core belief drove the way he ran his business much more than profits or his own self-interest in it [did]."

    201303IBILindaandJohnDavis.jpg The word—the word everyone uses about Davis—is 'passion.'

    "John's passion for bowling can never be duplicated," Ciniello says. President of QubicaAMF Worldwide, he, too, met Davis in the '80s, when Davis stopped at Ciniello's center to pitch him on Davis's first lane device, The Key.

    John and Linda Davis

    "He believed in the legitimacy of the sport. He felt that if the sport was gone, the game just [wouldn't be] enough.

    "He was the Steve Jobs of the bowling industry," Ciniello adds, "this person who had this vision of what a perfect bowling world would be, where the competition was there and everybody was playing on a level field. He kept on trying to make that level playing field to the last days of his life."

    We knew that part of the story, but we did not know the difference Davis made in many lives, Chartrand's, for one.

    201303IBIDavisFamily.jpg "I was 22 years old when I came to Kegel. The position I was being [considered] for was sales for this whole company. I wasn't qualified for it, I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't know how to do it, I was totally unprepared. He gave me an opportunity that I don't think any other person would.

    Loretta Davis and her four sons. From left to right, top row: John Davis, Dennis Davis and Dale Davis. Bottom row: Mark Davis, Loretta Davis and Greg Davis.

    "It was because we connected in terms of character and judgment and ethics. He said, 'All that other stuff will work itself out; we'll learn that together.' It was this long conversation on his back porch about life and about bowling. I think back: at 23, I'm sitting across from these international distributors. The amount of trust he placed in me was tremendous."

    Ciniello says, "Lisa [his wife] and I would be in Orlando and stop at Sebring and we would go into his office. This is when he was starting to work on prototypes. On his Mac, he would show me the distribution of a drop of oil going across the lanes. We would talk for hours.

    "It was always a dream—this is pre-AMF (merger)—if we combined Qubica and Kegel, what a powerhouse that would be! What respect we would get from the industry because of our shared vision of how you should treat a customer and our love of bowling. We talked about that many, many times.

    'Hey John, if we could get together we could do this, we could do that!' We [Ciniello] were in Lake Hamilton and they [Davis] were in Lake Wales, maybe 20 miles, 30 miles [apart]. We would get together and talk, talk about how we grew the businesses and how [our] philosophies were so much alike."

    201303IBIJohnDavisLennyNicholson.jpg After Davis died, unexpectedly, "Uncle Lenny" Nicholson went to stay with Davis's grandkids to help them over the ordeal. He calls Davis "the greatest family man I ever met."

    John Davis and Len Nicholson

    He tells of times when Davis would get to the Orlando airport only to announce, "Hell, I ain't going. I'll send somebody else. I've got to stay with my family. My family needs me." But that quality of regard wasn't limited by blood.

    Sometimes Davis would stay over on a trip. One time Nicholson asked him why. "I met this young man, a 160-average bowler. He wanted me to help him, so I spent a day helping him with his game."

    "I can't tell you how many times he told me, 'You know what bothers me? I'm not going to have enough to be able to sustain the 100 families I have'," Nicholson remembers. Davis was talking about his employees.

    "I [knew] him like a brother. In some ways, he was like a father to me. I'm 72 and John was going to be 65 next month [March]. We traveled a lot together and it got hard to travel because we were getting older. He always worried about my health.

    We both smoked too much. This past Christmas I had a little bout. We [talked] a lot on the phone and Skype. He said, 'How you doing?' 'Fine.' 'I'm hearing things.' He had a grapevine [where] he'd [find] out everything. He said, 'You better start taking care of yourself. I quit smoking six months ago and I'm eating vegetables. You gotta quit smoking.' We talked for an hour. He died that night."

    201303IBIJohnDavisArmy.jpg "I hope," says Chartrand, "that his legacy is that more people will think a little like he [did] or make decisions more about what's best for our industry or what's best for our sport as opposed to what's best for my company's interest in it.

    John Davis served four years in the Air Force from 1966 to 1970 as a jet mechanic. His service include one tour of duty in Vietnam.

    On the LaneMapper, "We have invested easily a million dollars. The first dollar of profit on that investment is not anywhere in sight."

    The Kegel Training Center "doesn't make any money, has never made any money, it was never intended to make any money. He started the Training Center in 1997 as a dream, to have a place where people could go to learn the game, to have the tools, the best coaching.

    "Providing staff and high-level equipment to take care of maintenance at tournaments, to place importance on maintenance and fair play at tournaments around the world was not done until John made it a priority."

    "It really hit me the other day," Nicholson offers. "Somebody said, 'It's too bad John left so early because he was working on a couple of projects.' I said, 'You know what? John would never get done with projects. Once he got through those two, he'd be working on something else.' He reminded me in a way of Eddie Elias [PBA founder]: looking past the horizon."

    + + +

    The last time we saw John Davis was over drinks at the opening of IBC. It had been the better part of ten years since we had done a cover story about him (May 2001), a piece we called "The Keeper of the Flame." The hair had thinned a little, it was graying and he wore it long in back, but the eyes were just as alert and quick.

    We thought it might be about time to update John's story for our readers, but trying to pin him down was, as always, like trying to nail quicksilver.

    He drifted away, falling into conversation with some other people in the room. We thought as he took his leave, as we had thought many times and as we remember him now: he was innovation advancing the tradition.


    2013IBIFredGroh_small.jpg   Fred Groh is a regular contributor to IBI and former managing editor of the magazine.