Iris W. Davis (1956-2018)
June 12, 2018 by Office of the President
To faculty and staff,
It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of the death of Trustee Iris W. Davis ’78 on Saturday, June 9, following a brief, but courageous, battle with cancer. Iris devoted herself to improving the lives of others through her leadership and commitment to public health, her engagement in community service, and her service to Bowdoin.
Iris was born on October 16, 1956, in New York City to Wanza and Bettie Davis. Her parents became teachers at the Tisbury School on Martha’s Vineyard, and Iris graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1974. An outstanding athlete (captain in three sports), scholar, and musician, Iris established herself as a quiet and effective leader in high school and in the community at large. At Bowdoin she was a history major, an active member of the Afro-American Society and Theta Delta Chi fraternity, co-captain of the women’s basketball team, and goaltender for two state championship field hockey teams. She competed in track and field, played lacrosse, and still found time to volunteer at the Brunswick Recreational Center. She was the first recipient of the Annie L. E. Dane Trophy for team play in women’s athletics.
Iris’s passionate concern for the public good guided her career. After earning a master of public health degree with a concentration in environmental science and epidemiology at Boston University in 1984, she joined the Department of Environmental Quality Engineering for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as an environmental scientist, a position that put her in the field and on the front lines of protecting public health and industry workers from contaminants in air, water, and soil. She was in charge of compliance for environmental clean-ups on the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project in Boston, a massive undertaking that, because of its sheer size and scope, presented a full spectrum of potential public health issues. She also monitored the capping of Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor, the site of what was once the Boston city dump. In 1990 Iris was the Massachusetts state project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency’s residential lead removal project. While her considerable scientific and interpersonal skill and years of experience might have led to a position in the private sector, Iris felt that she could do the greatest good for the largest number of people as a public servant and as an agent of change.
Iris had a gift for teaching, and she loved working with children as a basketball coach at a local community center. She engaged in outreach activities on environmental justice issues, listening to the concerns of citizens in areas that were exposed to environmental risks, and gave voice to those concerns in the halls where policies were formed and where actions were taken. She served on the advisory boards of the New England Consortium (University of Massachusetts–Lowell), the Boston University School of Public Health, Wentworth Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts governor’s STEM council, and the New England Consortium for Labor and the Environment. She had been a consultant for the Tisbury and Chilmark Boards of Health on Martha’s Vineyard, a board member for the State Waterways Advisory Committee (1980), a member of the 1988 accreditation committee for Schools of Public Health in Massachusetts, and a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on Environmental Affairs (1989).
In Bowdoin affairs, Iris was a BASIC volunteer for the admissions office from 1978 to 1984, and a valued member of the Bowdoin College Athletic Hall of Honor Selection Committee. She was elected to the Alumni Council in 1991, served as its president in 1994-1995 and was a member of the Board of Overseers Subcommittee for Minority Affairs. Iris remained engaged in issues of diversity and inclusion at Bowdoin ever since her graduation in 1978, and in 2000, she was honored with the Alumni Service Award, in recognition of her devoted service to Bowdoin and to society. She was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2014.
As a trustee, she was deeply engaged in considering the future of the College, always asked the most insightful questions, and provided wise and thoughtful counsel to me and to others at the College. Board Chair Michele Cyr ’76 P’12 said, “Iris’s commitment to and passion for Bowdoin was unparalleled. She brought her keen intellect, sense of fairness, generosity, and warmth to her considerable work for the College. We are heartbroken to have lost our beloved friend and colleague.”
Iris is survived by her sister, Carro Davis Johnson, her brother-in-law, Dennis Johnson, and a niece, Dawn Meacham, all of Vineyard Haven.
Julianne and I count ourselves among the very fortunate to have known Iris, and today, we share a great sorrow with her family, her colleagues, her classmates, and all those who knew her over the course of her remarkable life and career.