My favorite Jim Davenport story won’t make much sense to most people, but it always makes me smile.
Jim, whom we called “Dav” because that was his login on the Atex mainframe system we used at The State back then, first came to work for the paper on a sort of unofficial basis while he was still a graduate student at USC. Tom McLean, who was the executive editor in those days, paid him from some mysterious fund only he had access to — so Dav was working for us, but invisible to the folks in H.R.
The managing editor didn’t know about him, either. This was in the very late ’80s or very early ’90s, because that was when Bobby Hitt, now our secretary of commerce, was the M.E. One day in an editor’s meeting, Bobby (who had been away on a fellowship) asked, “Who’s this Jim Davenport and why are we cutting him checks?” One of my colleagues explained that he did various special projects and answered to the executive editor, but wasn’t able to provide any details.
At that moment, then-Features Editor Jim Foster leaped to his feet and cried, “Clarence Beeks!” At which point I just about literally fell on the floor laughing — although most in the room didn’t get it.
Assuming most of y’all are in the same boat, “Clarence Beeks” was the name of a shadowy character in the comedy “Trading Places,” who did top-secret, off-the-books jobs for these two rich guys who employed him to, among other things, get ahold of a top-secret crop report so that they could corner the market on frozen concentrated orange juice. There’s a sort of “eureka” moment in the movie when both Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd leap to their feet crying out in unison, “Clarence Beeks!”
OK, so maybe that story doesn’t tell you much about Jim Davenport, who died today at age 54 after a two-year battle with cancer. But in a way it does, because even that early in his career, he had a quiet, matter-of-fact competence about him that made you believe that he could go out and get done whatever needed doing. Tom McLean obviously thought so, or he wouldn’t have brought Jim on board when there was no actual position open for him. He was something of a jack-of-all-trades, as the story by his AP colleagues today attests:
Before entering journalism, he drove a barge for a dredging operation, worked as a roadie for a band and made tires at a factory. He also had a master’s degree in English. The journalism bug bit him while he was at the University of South Carolina…
… which was about when I met him.
Today, most in the trade in South Carolina know Jim as the Associated Press’s longtime stalwart watchdog over the State House. He’s known for such attention-grabbers as being the first to report when our governor went missing in 2009 (only to turn up later on a return flight from Argentina).
But Jim was also the kind of reporter that an editor like me particularly appreciates. I’ve never been a big admirer of the reporters who just hit an occasional home run and then rest on their laurels. I like the ones who get on base at least once in every game. Jim was solid day after day. Nothing stopped him. Just as one small example — it was his dogged persistence, nagging at the governor’s office, that finally got Nikki Haley to admit that she had no idea what she was talking about when she claimed that half of job applicants at the Savannah River Site had failed drug tests (the actual rate was less than 1 percent).
What I like is the kind of reporter who just doesn’t let feckless politicians get away with routine assertions about things that fit their ideologies, but not the facts, and that’s the kind of reporter Jim was.
I knew some months ago that the end was coming for Jim. Still, he was out there working, even when the sweat was pouring from his brow as he showed up for yet another press conference. Despite the obvious physical strain, he would still set the tone for the event, calmly asking his common-sense questions, not letting anything get by him.
The last time I saw him out there, I asked how he was doing. Not well, he told me matter-of-factly. He wasn’t going to get over it, not this time. I didn’t know what to say. I told him I didn’t know what to say. He just nodded, like a man who had already sorted it out in his own mind, but understood that others might have trouble dealing with it.
I so wanted to say something that would make it better somehow. But I couldn’t. Now he’s gone, and South Carolina is the less for having lost him.