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An Angel of the Arts

by Patricia Janda

BERNESE DAVIS RECENTLY DONATED $1 million to the Florida Arts Cultural Center to help restore the historic former Post Office on First Street in the River District in downtown Fort Myers, now named the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in honor of her late husband Sidney. I recently had the privilege to meet with Berne for an intimate interview.

“I’m involved with the Festival of Lights right now,” Berne told me. “Perhaps we can get together after those events are over.” So, I waited a few weeks and phoned one evening around seven, hesitating to call that late, thinking she may be resting. “Mrs. Davis is out for the evening,” her housekeeper and friend Maggie told me. At age 93, Berne is living a very full life. A few days later we set a date.

When I arrived at her stately home on the Caloosahatchee River, Berne Davis, gracious and charming, opened the door. “Hello, come in,” she said, with a warm smile. Wearing white slacks, a red and white striped long sleeved shirt, lovely jewelry and her brown hair neatly coiffed, she would have made a beautiful cover for Harper’s Bazaar. It’s almost impossible to believe she celebrated her 93rd birthday on March 19.

Berne took me on a tour of the home she and Sidney built in 1942. Each piece of furniture had a story. “It’s all old stuff,” she remarked. “Some was given to us, or we bought at various sales.”

We decided to have the interview at her kitchen table. “Let’s sit in the nook,” Berne said, “it’s cozy there.” The small table was piled high with birthday cards, which she started to move out of the way. I offered to help, but before I could do a thing she scurried out to the garage to find a basket.

Returning with a tan wicker basket, she gathered all the cards from the table and then bent over a kitchen chair, practically standing on her head, to retrieve those that were neatly stacked on the floor! Grasping the now heavy basket by its handle, she put it aside so we could sit down. This little lady does not have anyone do something for her that she can do herself! Then we had a conversation I’ll not soon forget.

Pat Janda: When did you move to Fort Myers?

BERNE DAVIS: 1928. I’m originally from Hamilton County, Florida. My father was with the sawmills and when the company closed, we moved to Fort Myers. Many other employees moved here, too. Some people have written that I’m from Georgia, but no, I’m a Florida Cracker!

How did you meet your husband?

I was a substitute.

For Bridge?

No. Sidney was invited to a pre-marriage party and the girl he had been dating, Barbara Mann’s sister, was unable to go. So, I was asked to take her place. I didn’t think he would want to go with me, as he was 13 years older.

I’ve led an enchanted life. We never had any children and so Sidney and I spent much of our time volunteering in the community. I helped at Lee Memorial Hospital serving on the board and was a charter member. At the Red Cross I made bandages during the war and served on their Board and, of course, belong to the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council. I love flowers.

And Sidney?

He was the most unselfish man I ever met —tremendously interested in education and helped many kids through college. He believed in preserving the best of the past for the future. That’s why I wanted to have his name on the old Post Office. He would be so proud of that. When he died in 1989, we had been married just a few months shy of fifty years.

What can you tell me about the Edisons?

Well, Sidney knew Mina before I met her. He was instrumental in the success of downtown. He worked at the bank for years and when Heitman went out of business, he took over the men’s clothing store a block from the old Post Office. He was president and a director of the Chamber and Downtown Merchants Association and a steward and teacher of the Young Men’s Wesley Bible Class at First Methodist Church, not far from the Post Office. Mrs. Edison was a guest teacher of his class from time to time and their friendship grew from there. She often wrote to him like a mother or grandmother to a child. It was the old Post Office where he’d walk to receive and send his letters to Mrs. Edison. I love that building and think it is the prettiest one in Fort Myers.

One evening Sidney and I were invited to dinner at Mina’s home. Having not met her before, I said to Sidney, maybe she won’t like me. Well, when we walked in she had her arms outstretched and made me feel right at home. She was a lovely person and thought all women should have something to do. She did so much for the community. One time a friend of mine said she thought Mina used too much rouge. Mrs. Edison never wore any makeup! She just had rosy cheeks. I have hibiscus plants Mina gave me, planted out front, and a Royal Palm from the Burroughs. After all these years, they are still here. I think my love of flowers is directly connected to her. Everyone who ever worked for the Edisons loved them.

I see a lovely award ribbon here on the table. Where did it come from?

It’s the Arboreal Award from the FFGC (Florida Federation of Garden Clubs) State Flower Show that I received recently.

I understand you were in the first Edison Festival of Light celebration.

It started in 1938 and I was on the court and so was Sidney. The following year I was crowned Queen and Sidney was Lord Chamberlain, the one who crowns the queen. My sister Eunice’s daughter, Alexandra Bremner, also was a queen, many years later. Alexandra is a Head Start teacher at Allen Park School. I’m so proud of her. She’s such a devoted teacher.

I have to tell you about a surprise Eunice had for me not so long ago. She wanted to take me downtown one night and drove to the old Post Office. Well, I saw all these colors shimmering on the Post Office and said, “Did they paint the building?” “No,” Eunice assured me. “That’s the bronze sculpture with lights on.” It was so beautiful. At that moment I made the decision to donate the money.

And now you have received the 2007 Benefactor Award from the Angels of the Arts. How do you feel about that?

I was overwhelmed. But you know, it’s kind of selfish, don’t you think, giving while you’re living?

What do you mean?

Well, everyone makes a fuss over you.

No, I don’t think so. When you give while you’re living, you see the joy you’ve brought to people and that’s a beautiful thing. •

from the May-June 2007 issue