Aubrey Davis, transportation advocate, Group Health pioneer
Aubrey Davis’ most visible legacy might be the lush lid, with trails and ballfields, that sits atop Interstate 90 as it crosses Mercer Island.
The state had wanted to build a 13-lane bridge across Lake Washington in the 1960s and Mr. Davis, a Mercer Island City Council member and mayor, famously said of I-90 that he didn’t want to “see it, hear it or smell it.”
The state agreed to redesign the road with a Mercer Island lid and created a still-used process for listening to community input.
Mr. Davis, however, considered his pioneering work at Group Health his greatest accomplishment. As a founding member (No. 239) and later Group Health’s CEO, Mr. Davis helped revolutionize health care in the United States by showing a consumer-governed system could succeed.
“My role in making Group Health work and survive is the most important thing I’ve done,” Mr. Davis said in 2007, according to historylink.org.
A civic giant, Mr. Davis, 95, died Sunday morning at his Seattle home after a short illness, said his son, Peter Davis.
He had given the keynote speech Wednesday for the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services Foundation “Giving from the Heart Breakfast,” his son said.
He strived every day to improve the world around him.
He helped create Seattle’s downtown bus tunnel and King County’s first buses with access for the disabled. He reshaped the state Department of Transportation to include an increased focus on transit. He was an early adopter of congestion pricing, which charges people to drive during peak hours. He even invented a no-slip compound still used on decks across the country for a family business, Gaco Western.
“He was always a man before his time,” said Connie Niva, a friend who served on the Washington Transportation Commission with Mr. Davis.
Niva listed Mr. Davis’ priorities as “family first, then health care, transportation and the Mariners.”
Mr. Davis was born in South Pasadena, Calif., son of a life-insurance salesman and housewife, according to historylink.org. He graduated in 1939 from Occidental College. Convinced public service was a noble calling, he intended to be a city manager.
He began working at the Federal Public Housing Authority. In 1941, he was drafted by the Army and served more than two years in India, assembling trucks to be sent to China.
That year Mr. Davis also met his future wife, Henrietta “Retta” Herzberger, who died in 2008. They were known together as “Aubrietta” for 65 years, said daughter Trisha Davis.
After World War II, the newlyweds came to Seattle, a compromise between their respective home states of Colorado and California. They moved into veterans’ housing at Rainier Vista.
In 1947, the Davises joined Group Health Cooperative, a month after it was created by a coalition of consumers, union members and small-business owners.
Under the Group Health model, medical coverage was prepaid, creating a financial incentive for keeping people healthy and out of hospitals.
As the cooperative struggled to survive, Mr. Davis became a passionate board member. He later became its CEO.
Cheryl Scott, who later also was CEO of Group Health, said Mr. Davis was her mentor and second father. From him, she said, she learned to listen and to stand her ground when she thinks she’s right.
“He felt life intensely, he really did,” she said. “Everything about life was intense and important and sweet and principled.”
“He was a moral compass for so many of us,” she added. “Through the decades, he would never let us give up on what was right in terms of health care and health care reform.”
Scott recalled a meeting, right after she became CEO of Group Health in 1997, when she met with Mr. Davis in her office. He pointed to her chair, and said, “‘That’s your chair.” “‘I know that’s my chair,” she recalls replying.
“He said, ‘Well, then, do something with it. Don’t just sit in it.’”
He never gave up on his beloved Mariners, either, she said, even when they did poorly. “He would just smile and shrug his shoulders and say, ‘It’s another season.’”
Meanwhile, he and two partners had bought a rubber company they called Gaco Western. Mr. Davis became its president and experimented in his basement until he found an ingredient — crushed walnut shells — that made a no-slip compound.
The shells have “the same hardness as the coating and wear uniformly,” said Peter Davis, the company’s CEO.
When the Davises vacationed with their four children, every outing was a chance for Mr. Davis to do some business, Trisha Davis said.
“He thought nothing would be more fun than going to see another roof, deck or dam. We all sat in the car and played solitaire, went swimming in the local river or played in the city park. Mom fed us lunch out of the family picnic kit, which was a suitcase coated with Gaco coating. As odd as it seems, we have fond memories of those trips,” she said.
Mr. Davis was elected to the Mercer Island City Council in 1967 and became mayor in 1970. That led to decades of transportation activism. In 1971 he became chair of Metro’s Transit Committee, helping to create the Seattle ride-free zone, use of higher-capacity articulated buses, and accessibility for the disabled.
Shortly after, he was named regional administrator of the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration. From that post, Mr. Davis lobbied for funds for Portland’s light rail and Seattle’s bus tunnel.
Tom Gibbs met Mr. Davis about 45 years ago when Gibbs was Metro’s executive director. “He approached the issues with such fairness that I can’t think of anybody who opposed him who didn’t respect him,” Gibbs said.
In 1992 Mr. Davis was appointed to the Washington Transportation Commission, from which he pushed the state highway department into supporting rail and commuter-trip reduction. Mr. Davis continued to work on issues such as congestion pricing after he left the state commission in 2004.
Not everyone was a fan. Former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance criticized him as a “transit zealot” back in 2003 and accused Mr. Davis of Orwellian social engineering.
Gibbs, who now lives near Phoenix, said he called Mr. Davis on Friday, after hearing that Mr. Davis was not doing well.
Mr. Davis was alert and quick-minded, and talked about how pleased he was that Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez had signed a $175 million contract.
Mr. Davis also dabbled in politics beyond Mercer Island. He ran for King County executive in 1977, losing to incumbent John Spellman. He ran Sen. Warren Magnuson’s last re-election campaign in 1980, a loss to Slade Gorton.
But deep inside Mr. Davis was a policy wonk and Renaissance man, said friends and family.
He took his family to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland every year for 25 years. “This was very special for all of us, and it was a Davis family rite of passage for each grandchild when they became old enough to go to a Shakespeare play,” Trisha Davis said.
He also took the family to Hawaii every 10 years, she added. “We were all there for the millennium, which was a wonderful two-week party.”
In addition to Peter and Trisha Davis, he is survived by children Judy Willott and Becky Pentz, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 10:29 a.m. (29 was an important number for him) on May 18 at the Paramount, 911 Pine Street, Seattle.
Donations may be made to Group Health Foundation, Group Health Hospice and the Economic Opportunity Institute.