Born and reared in Swainsboro, Desse Ervin Davis Sr. touched the lives of many all over Emanuel County and beyond through his many years in education and public service.
He was born April 30, 1938 in Swainsboro, the son of the late Mr. Carlos and Mrs. Bessie Lucille Davis. His father was killed when he was a toddler, so Davis and his siblings were raised primarily by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet for her family of four children. As the oldest male in the home, Desse learned the value of hard work at an early age. Those traits honed through hours working on farms and in the fields made a lasting impact on his life and helped shape the values for his future.
Desse graduated from segregated public schools in Emanuel County and played college football and basketball while on his way to earning his bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State College. He began his teaching career at Emanuel County Elementary & High School, but most people may not know that his first job in education was working as a school janitor on his way to eventually becoming a teacher and coach.
He later met another young teacher, Nellie Zackery, and they wed in March 1968. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 2018 in a union that produced three children — the late Desse Jr., John and Natalie. Nellie, a retired English teacher, affectionately known as Zack to family and close friends, passed away in August 2018 after an extended battle with cancer.
Desse earned a master’s degree from Valdosta State University and an education specialist’s degree from Georgia Southern University. He worked as a math teacher, cross country, football and track coach in Emanuel County Schools for 22 years. Desse also worked part-time for the Emanuel County Recreation Department and for 25 years as a referee and high school athletics official.
He was the first African American principal of Swainsboro High School and was the first principal to serve in the newly-built SHS in 1989. He was principal for 10 years at SHS, working alongside former students-turned teachers and helping guide the lives of second and even third generations of students and families.
As a track and cross country coach, Desse earned 13 Coach of the Year awards from the Georgia High School Association. During his tenure as principal, SHS was designated a Public School of Excellence and was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School. In 1993, he was honored as a National Educator of the Year by the Milken Family Foundation. He was also honored as Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2010. Desse was also a proud member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc.
He retired from SHS in 1995 after 32 years as an educator, but his efforts to inspire young people continued. After retiring from the public school system, Desse became full-time principal at the Emanuel County Youth Development Center.
His students, particularly the young men he coached, were an extension of his family, and Desse maintained friendships with them beyond their high school days. Former players often called and visited on into adulthood, another testament to his impact on their lives.
In addition to his work in education and athletics, Desse was deeply involved in his church and community as a deacon of more than 50 years at Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, and as an Emanuel County commissioner since 1995. He served as commission chairman and despite sickness and failing health, attended meetings regularly until he could no longer do so in person.
Desse would often ask people where they attended church and invite them to Oak Grove. Even in his waning days when he was no longer strong enough to attend, he checked up on his church family, whom he loved so dearly.
In spite of tough times, Desse was not above offering financial support to others in need. He was always willing to advise or provide wise counsel to anyone who needed it. He gave of his time and sacrificed so much for his family, his church and the community that he loved so dearly — his hometown. His family and his faith were most important, however, and he took his role as head of his family to heart.
Desse never allowed the circumstances of his humble beginnings or the tragic loss of his father to hinder his growth and progress through hard work and sacrifice. He instilled that same work ethic in his children, and it lives on through them today, as will his lasting legacy.
Whether working in his church, tending to his farm, or speaking to young people in the community, Desse worked hard at everything he did in hopes of impacting and inspiring others.
He was preceded in death by his parents, as well as son, Desse Jr.; his wife, Nellie; a sister, Nina K. Davis Bell; a son-in-law, Octavious TaShawn Linder; and three grandchildren, Bryson Zackery, Byron Octavious and Bella Ann Linder.
Desse is survived by his son, John, and daughter, Natalie, as well as one sister, Annie Vaughn Godfrey (James) of Atlanta; a brother, Jesse (Bernetta) Davis of Swainsboro; several nieces and nephews, cousins, other extended family and friends. He is also survived by the apple of his eye, his grandson, Brayden Nicholas Cordal Linder.
On Monday, October 16, 2023, cancer overtook his physical body, but his strong faith in God reminds us all that he is now free.
A life well lived.